Researchers Are Using X-Rays to Solve the Mystery Behind Sicily’s Child Mummies

The bodies were preserved and put on display at the Catacombs of Palermo between 1787 and 1880, and have yet to be identified

large room will the walls lined with preserved bodies
The catacombs contain the bodies of 1,284 people, including 163 children. Dpedreroroson via Wikimedia Commons under CC SA 4.0

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in northern Sicily hold more than a thousand bodies, including those of 163 children. Now researchers are using X-ray technology to learn more about the lives and deaths of some of those long-deceased kids, reports Daniel Boffey for the Guardian.

The new project, led by archaeologist Kirsty Squires of Staffordshire University, will start with the analysis of 41 children who died between 1787 and 1880 and whose remains are in a “child chapel” within the catacombs. 

“We will take a portable X-ray unit and take hundreds of images of the children from different angles,” Squires tells the Guardian. “We are hoping to better understand their development, health and identity, comparing the biological fundings with the more cultural kind of things: the way the individuals have been mummified and the clothes they are wearing as well.”

The team will use 14 X-ray images per mummy to build a profile of each child, looking for indicators of developmental problems, stress and injuries, reports Jack Guy for CNN. While the children were mummified fully clothed, with some placed in cradles or chairs, little is known about who they were or why they were not buried in more typical fashion.

Well-preserved body of young girl with gold hair ribbon
One particularly well-known child mummy is that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died at age two. Carlo Vannini via Palermo Catacombs

“The mummification rite was reserved for wealthier individuals like nobility, the middle class and the clergy," Squires tells CNN. “So we know that they weren't the poorest members of society, but that's all we know, really.”

Per the Guardian, Capuchin friars, who established a monastery in Palermo in 1534, initially created the catacombs after witnessing what they saw as a miracle. Through the late 16th century, they buried their dead in a mass grave. When this pit became full, they built a new cemetery and prepared to transfer the bodies of the deceased friars there. The friars exhumed 45 bodies that had been naturally mummified, their preserved faces still recognizable. Viewing this as an act of God, the friars chose to display the bodies as relics in niches along the walls of the new cemetery. 

The catacombs attracted attention in the wider world, and the friars began allowing laypeople to be laid to rest there as well, eventually expanding the building. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, thousands of people—generally wealthy ones whose families could afford hefty donations to the monastery—were mummified and put on display. 

To preserve the bodies, the friars removed their internal organs, replacing them with straw or bay leaves to aid in the drying process, and left them in a low-humidity room known as the “colatioio” for almost a year. After that, they washed them with vinegar, dressed them, and placed them on display in the catacomb’s wall niches. In some cases, the mummification process also involved bathing the bodies in arsenic or injecting them with preservatives, reports Nicoletta Lanese for Live Science

The catacombs remained in use until 1880, with two additional bodies buried at the site in the early 20th century. “Mummification became a status symbol, a way to preserve status and dignity even in death with the possibility for the families of the deceased to visit and venerate not just ordinary graves, but dead bodies well preserved,” the Catacombs website explains.

Over time, the site became a tourist attraction, which visitors can tour for the equivalent of $3.40, reports Yuliya Talmazan for NBC News. Of the 1,284 bodies collected there, some are partially skeletonized while some are extraordinarily well-preserved. 

One particularly well-known child mummy is that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia at age two in 1920. She is often referred to as the “world’s most beautiful mummy” due to her well-preserved face, eyelashes and hair, per NBC.

The new investigation, designed to be non-invasive, aims to tell the stories of more of the children preserved in the catacombs, Dario Piombino-Mascali, a biological anthropologist and the project’s co-investigator, tells NBC.

“I want to make sure their stories and presence on this Earth is not forgotten,” he says.

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