Scientists hope to solve the mystery of Italy’s child mummies

(CNN) – A team of scientists is trying to figure out why dozens of children were mummified and buried in catacombs in a monastery on the Italian island of Sicily.

The first comprehensive study of pediatric mummies will be led by Kirsty Squires, associate professor of bioarchaeology at Staffordshire University in the UK, and fieldwork is set to begin next week.

At the Capuchin Catacombs, a macabre tourist attraction in Palermo, northern Sicily, researchers will analyze the remains of 41 children buried in a designated room for children – although a total of 163 children are buried in the catacombs.

“We want to try to understand the lives of these individuals, their health, development and so on,” Squires told CNN on Thursday. “And based on that, we also want to compare the biological data with the more cultural side of things.”

Squires added that the mummies were fully clothed, with some placed in cradles and chairs, while others stood upright with sticks used to hold them in place – and the researchers will investigate the significance of why these artifacts were used.

The fully clothed remains of a child at the Capuchin catacombs pictured in January 2011.

The fully clothed remains of a child at the Capuchin catacombs pictured in January 2011.

Tony Gentile / Reuters

Little is known about these children, who were buried from 1787-1880 and are part of the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe, comprising at least 1,284 corpses.

“We know they would have come from middle-class families – the mummification ritual was reserved for richer individuals such as the nobility, middle class and priests,” Squires said.

“So we know they were not the poorest members of society, but that’s all we know in reality.” Squires added, “Why weren’t they just buried like other individuals?”

The team uses X-rays because it is a non-invasive method that does not offer the same ethical considerations as invasive studies of human remains, according to a press release from Staffordshire University.

“We use a portable x-ray machine to take x-rays so we can assess the age of individuals based on their tooth eruption and the development and fusion of the bones,” Squires said, adding that she would look for signs of disease.

The researchers will use the x-rays – 574 in total, or 14 per mummy – to fill in a biological profile of the children and find out if mummification was performed on them only by a certain age or gender.

“They will also be used to detect the presence of developmental defects, stress indicators and pathological lesions, which aim to gain an insight into children’s health and lifestyle in life,” according to the project’s website.

According to Squires, mummification was practiced in the catacombs from about 1599 to the beginning of the 20th century, seen by the middle class as a “way to keep their social persona alive after death,” with families visiting the bodies of their buried relatives.

Squires and her co-researcher Dario Piombino-Mascali from the University of Vilnius in Lithuania will be accompanied by two radiographers and an artist in the catacombs and will spend a week looking at death records. It will be months before the results are published, she said.

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