Secrets of Sicily's child mummies to be unearthed in new study

Very little is known about the more than 160 children buried in Sicily’s world-famous Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo and why their slender and often mummified bodies were housed there in the first place.

Now a group of researchers are preparing to unravel some of their long-kept secrets.

According to Kirsty Squires, principal researcher and associate professor of bioarchaeology at Staffordshire University, England, who leads the international study, the researchers hope to use X-ray technology to gain more insight into the lifestyle and ages of children.

The project, which for the first time exclusively focuses on children who died between 1787 and 1880, will look for clues to developmental defects, trauma and illnesses, she wrote in an email on Wednesday.

“We’re looking for cause of death, state of health at the time of death, and development,” she added. “Nobody has looked at the mummies before to better understand these attributes.”

Tourists walk past mummified bodies kept in the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.Alessandra Tarantino / AP

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe, contain around 1,284 mummified and partially skeletonized bodies – some of them exceptionally well preserved, according to researchers.

They are part of Sicilian heritage and are on display to the general public and tourists, but questions remain about the children buried there and the death records contain limited information.

The researchers will target 41 corpses, which are kept in the so-called children’s room of the catacombs. The catacombs house at least 163 children’s corpses, but Squires said they only focus on those that are accessible to them.

The researchers scan each mummy from head to toe to examine their bones to help determine its age, as well as debris and soft tissue in the pelvic area to determine gender.

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The results are then compared to the deceased’s placement in the nursery, as well as their clothing and burial artifacts, for a better look at their identity in life and death, Squires added.

The X-rays would not damage the children’s bodies, the researchers said.

“Imaging is non-invasive, and since the mummies cannot be moved out of the crypt, this approach is the only viable one,” wrote Dario Piombino-Mascali, co-investigator on the project and biological anthropologist at Vilnius University in Lithuania, in one To email.

Field work is slated to begin next week, the researchers said.

The mummified bodies and skeletal remains that occupy the many niches, crevices and passages of the Nasturtiums are one of the most important mummy collections in the world.

The cemetery was originally reserved for Capuchin monks only, but was later opened to the public.

It is now a historic landmark and a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can pay the equivalent of $ 3.40 to tour the catacombs and see the bodies.

One of the child mummies buried in the catacombs previously examined by researchers is that of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia in 1920 at the age of two.

The biological anthropologist Dario Piombino-Mascali sits next to the mummified body of Rosalia Lombardo. Fabrizio Villa / Getty Images File

Because of her extremely well-preserved and almost lifelike face, eyelashes, hair and funeral clothing, she is often referred to as the “most beautiful mummy in the world”. She was one of the last people to be buried in the catacombs.

For Piombino-Mascali it is important that the stories of the children of the Nasturtiums are told.

“I was lucky enough to have children, but I know that some children were not so lucky and died prematurely,” he said. “I want to make sure that their stories and their presence on this earth are not forgotten.”

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