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    New Insights into the Capuchin Catacombs



    Story by Megan Mills 

    Naval Air Station Sigonella

    From the outside, it could be just another building in Palermo—nondescript, two story, sandy-colored, and perhaps a little run down. The entrance is tucked off in a corner, and the hallway on the other side of it wouldn’t be out of place in a Sicilian office building. Downstairs, however, are the Capuchin Catacombs, housing over 1,000 mummified and skeletonized human bodies.

    Visitors to the Palermo catacombs wander through multiple underground corridors lined with human remains. Some are displayed fully upright in the many alcoves lining the walls; others lie in open caskets. Their clothing ranges from simple wraps to fancy outfits full of accessories. Some bodies are only bones, some are in various states of preservations, and a few, like Rosalia Lombardo, who was embalmed at the age of two, look like they are merely resting.

    The experience of walking through these halls, which house the largest collection of mummies in Europe, can be overwhelming.

    For Dr. Kirsty Squires, associate professor of bioarchaeology at Staffordshire University, these catacombs are also an invaluable way to learn about the lives of the children who lie within.

    Bioarchaeologists study human remains and the objects buried with them in order to gain insight into the people and the customs of the past.
    When Squires met Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali of Vilnius University at an academic conference, she was intrigued by his presentation on the Capuchin Catacombs and how little research had been done. Together, they assembled an international team to use innovative and respectful methods to study 41 unnamed children who died between 1787 and 1880.

    “We can learn a wealth of information about children through the use of non-invasive methods (e.g. radiography),” wrote Squires in an email. “We can estimate how old they were when they died, and we can identify developmental defects, if they suffered from any disease that affected the skeleton, and signs of trauma. We can then use this information alongside the type of mummification they were afforded, their clothing, and funerary artefacts (e.g. chair, coffin, soft furnishings) to better understand who these children were, how they were perceived by the living (which would have influenced the funerary rite offered), and why they were mummified.”

    In addition to a radiographer, who uses a portable X-ray machine to take images without damaging the fragile remains, the team also includes an artist.

    “We can only use photography for the purpose of academic conference presentations and publications. The artist (Eduardo Hernandez) was invited to join the team due to the outreach we will be doing as part of the project,” wrote Squires. “We need to illustrate teaching packs (in English and Italian), tourist leaflets, and outreach activities - the lack of imagery would not convey the processes that were undertaken and the mummies examined. In addition, he will be producing scenes of daily life with an emphasis on children.”

    The Juvenile Mummy Project will last two years and has been featured in The Guardian and CNN. According to Squires, the diversity on the team has been crucial to its success.

    “Working with such a diverse international team has been enlightening as it offers an opportunity to overcome challenges from different perspectives,” she wrote. “Given the unique skillset of each team member, I have also learnt about new techniques and more about the history of the catacombs and local area. I am very lucky to work with such a fantastic team.”

    According to the Palermo Catacombs website, the Capuchin monastery in Palermo was established in 1534. By 1597, the room used as a mass grave was overflowing, so newly deceased bodies were placed in a vault while a new one was built. When the monks exhumed those bodies to transfer them, 45 were found to be naturally mummified. Believing this to be an act of god, the friars displayed their brethren as relics.
    Over time, people began to ask to have their remains preserved in the monastery as well, the act of which became a status symbol. In 1783, the Capuchins decided to allow anyone to be buried inside, but in 1880 the catacombs were closed to new burials with some exceptions such as Giovanni Paterniti, an American vice-counsul, in 1911 and Rosalia Lombardo after she died from pneumonia in 1920.

    Although some research has been done on the adults displayed in the catacombs, the children have never been studied specifically, something Squires aims to rectify with the Juvenile Mummy Project.
    “It is important to study the children as they are all too often overlooked when we study the past; if we do not learn about these children we cannot fully understand past societies,” wrote Squires. “Furthermore, this study aims to further emphasize the socio-cultural significance of mummification in late modern Palermo.”

    Fieldwork for the project, which involved archive research, radiography and visits to relevant sites in Palermo, began in January 2022. Although results won’t be available for months, the team recently published an academic article about the ethics of displaying and studying child mummies. More information can be found at the project’s website:

    Although the catacombs are currently closed to visitors for renovations, Squires has insightful advice for anyone who plans to visit them in the future:

    “I would advise visitors to read about the catacombs prior to visiting. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, there are no information boards in the catacombs so many visitors leave not fully appreciating the socio-cultural importance of this funerary rite during the late modern period. Secondly, some visitors are shocked when they see the mummified children and the large number of deceased individuals in the catacombs. By reading about the mummies and the catacombs, visitors have a better idea in terms of what to expect (though avoid newspaper articles with sensationalist titles as these do not tend to be informative; our project webpage includes a blog and a list of useful resources that we will add to on a regular basis:

    "I think visiting the catacombs is a special experience as you are not only faced by your own mortality but it is an incredible snapshot into history whereby the display of mummified individuals was an important custom.”



    Date Taken: 05.06.2022
    Date Posted: 05.17.2022 05:31
    Story ID: 420338
    Location: SIGONELLA, IT 

    Web Views: 9
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