A pyramid of corps stacked one on top of the other;
bodies of adults, infants, and children, partly skeletonised, partly mummified;
almost all of them supine, some on their sides, some face-down, in a patchwork
of skin, tendons, hair, clothes, socks, caps, bags, and shrouds.
In all, archaeologists from the regional Archaeological Superintendence of Emilia-Romagna (Luca Mercuri, Donato Labate) have found around 300 bodies, about one-third of which seem to have been naturally mummified. It's not clear when the mummies date to, as the church was in use as a burial ground from the mid-16th to the late 18th centuries. These were simple people, the archaeologists think, as they were "vestivano alla montanara" - dressed for the mountains in linen, cotton, and wool with no silk or lace accents
Archaeologists from the regional Archaeological
Superintendence of Emilia-Romagna restoring the fortress-turned-parish church of
the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle in the small and chilly Apennine mountain
town of Roccapelago have discovered 281 bodies piled in a pyramid shape under
the church floor. One hundred of the bodies were naturally mummified with skin,
tendons, hair, and clothes intact. The people weren’t the only creatures in that
crypt to find themselves unexpectedly preserved; rats and larvae were too.
The unusual preservation was due to a confluence of the consistently cold temperature and two slots in the church wall that kept the air constantly circulating. The vaulted crypt — used as an armoury when the church was a fortress in the Middle Ages — was first used for traditional inhumation under ground, but the practice later changed to corpses being dropped from a trap door in the church.
There are several initial layers of bodies which were not well-preserved, probably due to the weight of later burials. The final stack of bodies was covered with a thin coating of pebbles then covered, at the apex of the pyramid, with large boulders. The remains must have already been mummified by then because they were not squashed by the closure of the crypt in the 18th century.
The 300 bodies were buried in the crypt between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and probably form the bulk of the population of Roccapelago. Although they were dropped into a mass grave, they weren’t treated disrespectfully. The bodies were all clothed in tunics, hats and heavy socks, some of them wrapped in shrouds, some of them placed in bags. Their heads were wrapped so the jaws wouldn’t gape open, their clothes tied between their legs so their genitals wouldn’t be exposed for all eternity, and their hands folded together as in prayer. Some of them still landed kind of funny, including one fellow who was found doing a headstand with his legs open.
Mass graves don’t usually survive complete with mummified human remains, clothes, and artefacts like lockets and crosses, even a letter; this discovery will allow archaeologists to trace 300 years of social history in the tiny burg. The human remains will reveal infant and child mortality proportions, what kinds of illnesses were endemic, how they ate, how they worked. Researchers are also hoping to be able to determine degrees of consanguinity, a particular interest with such a small community, and how closely related they are to the modern inhabitants.
Analysis of the body bags, shrouds, clothing fabrics and weaves, plus devotional objects like saint medallions, rosaries and crosses, pollen, animal and vegetable remains will provide an incredibly detailed snapshot of peasant life in the town, their beliefs and traditions, their daily habits, even what the animals ate.
Archaeologists are particularly excited to have recovered a rare “lettera componenda” or “Rivelazione” (aka Revelation), a letter written to God that is basically a contract or deal. They promised prayer in exchange for God’s granting the deceased, in this case a woman, the five graces. These letters were thought to bless the person carrying them in life and when buried with them after death, usually in their hands or in their pockets. This one was found in the false floor of the room, however, so it may have been placed over the lady then covered with earth.
The letter is in need of restoration, but parts of it are already legible. A selection of the readable snippets:
Those who say three Our Fathers and if (…) two Hail Marys every day over the space of 15 years until they finish said number, I will grant them five Graces.
The first I concede them (…) remission of all sins. Second I will not make them submit to the pains of Purgatory.
If the present letter (…) goes to the Holy … Sepulchre in Jerusalem … and he who carries it on him will be free from the Devil and will not die in substance … bad death. Carried it on her the pregnant woman will give birth without danger. In the house where this Revelation lives there will be no illusion of bad things (….) before her death will see the Glorious Virgin Mary Amen
Bio anthropological study of the mummies has already
started, as well as a basic demographic analysis - there were men, women, and
children buried here. Further studies are expected, including assessments of
their diet and pathological conditions, as well as the creation of 3D models and
restorative work on some of the more impressive mummies.
Giorgio Gruppioni, a physical anthropology professor at the University of Bologna will lead the international plan of study for the mummies:
osteological analysis, with the help of X-rays and CT scans where necessary, as well as histological analysis in service of understanding the demographics of the population
palaeopathological analysis of teeth and bones to investigate trauma, diseases, diet, and hygiene
analysis of musculoskeletal markers to look into biomechanical stress on the skeletons
trace element analysis of the teeth and stable isotope analysis of the bones to reconstruct their diets
biological distance analysis using epigenetic traits of the skeleton, as well as DNA analysis, to look for population affinities
entomological analysis to investigate the conditions of burial
palaeomicrobiological investigations to detect pathogens and other microorganisms
3D reconstruction of the faces of some of the mummies and some of the burials themselves
In addition, ancient textile expert Iolanda Silvestri of the IBC Institute for Cultural and Artistic Heritage of Emilia-Romagna will further analyze the textiles found with the mummies. Other amazing finds include crucifixes and religious medallions, as well as the very well-preserved letter