Pyramid of Corpses in Roccapelago, Italy

Earlier this year, archaeologists working to help restore the 16th century church of Conversione di San Paolo Apostolo in the tiny north-central Italian town of Roccapelago found something they weren't expecting in the coffers of the crypt:
The "pyramid of corpses"
Credit: SBAER
Una piramide di corpi accatastati uno sull’altro, cadaveri di adulti, infanti e bambini in parte scheletrizzati, in parte mummificati, quasi tutti supini, qualcuno adagiato sul fianco, qualcuno prono, in un coacervo di pelle, tendini, capelli, abiti, calze, cuffie, sacchi e sudari. [via Gazzetta di Modena]
(A pyramid of corpses stacked one on top of the other; bodies of adults, infants, and children, partly skeletonized, 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 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:

Detail of a tomb.  Credit: SBAER

You can also watch a short video of the mummy above.  It's terribly focused in parts and doesn't say anything in addition to the news articles, but it's neat to watch, even if you don't understand Italian.

Bioanthropological study of the mummies has already started, and the Gazzetta di Modena suggests that a basic demographic analysis has been accomplished - 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.  Archeologia Viva has the full proposed plan of study for the mummies, written by Giorgio Gruppioni, a physical anthropology professor at the University of Bologna:
  • osteological analysis, with the help of Xrays 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 a very well-preserved letter, said to be a "settlement agreement" between God and the deceased, but far beyond my skills to translate:

Preserved letter.  Credit: SBAER.

After all this work is carried out, some of the mummies will be preserved within the church for display.  The remainder of them will be buried within the grounds of the church.

I hope that these researchers get all the funding they need to carry out this ambitious project on the lives of the mummies.  I for one would love to know what they ate, where they came from (were they pilgrims or locals?), and what they looked like.

(Thanks go to Roberto Labanti - @r_lab on Twitter - for pointing me at these news articles.  And to Bill Thayer - @LacusCurtius - for the links to Italy's other famous mummies, those of Ferentillo.)

UPDATE (6/25/11) - Roberto Labanti pointed out in the comments a wonderful page at the archaeological superintendency that details a lot about the excavation and more about what's been found than the Italian news media reported.  So do check it out here if you read Italian.

UPDATE (6/28/11) - The ever-awesome Rossella Lorenzi, who writes for, posted a slideshow of the best pictures from the excavation.


RL said…
as well as a very well-preserved letter, said to be a "settlement agreement" between God and the deceased

For the Italian readers, a first transcript and edition of the "letter" (an Italian version of a Himmelsbrief?) could be found here:

(middle of the page)

Following the link "cartella stampa" on the top, one could found further documentation about the discovery.

Roberto Labanti
Wow, thanks for that link, Roberto! Sounds like a really exciting project, and I can't wait to hear what they find out about the lives and deaths of these people.

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