It's the First Study to Examine Sicily's Child Mummies

Researchers to examine 41 'tiny dolls' mummified in Sicily's Capuchin Catacombs
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 5, 2022 12:30 PM CST
Researchers Aim to Reveal Secrets of Child Mummies
Two tourists walk by mummified corpses in the Capuchin Catacombs located in Palermo, Sicily, in this file photo. Both adults and children have been mummified there.   (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(Newser) – The Capuchin Catacombs in Sicily, Italy, are famous for their nearly 1,300 mummified corpses on display to the public. Now researchers plan to conduct the first-ever study devoted to a subset of those mummies—the children. Specifically, researchers from Staffordshire University in the UK will examine 41 mummified children, placed there between 1787 and 1880, in what's known as the "child chapel," reports the Guardian. Using X-ray images, the researchers hope to better understand how these children died, which might in turn shed light on life in Sicily at the time.

"We have a fairly good idea that they were from the upper ranks of society but we don’t know much more about juvenile health, development, or identity during this period," says lead researcher Kristy Squires, per SciTechDaily. Her two-year study begins this month. Some of the remains are skeletal, while others are better preserved, likely because of chemicals used in the process. "Some really look like sleeping children," says researcher Dario Piombino-Mascali. "They are darkened by the time but some of them have got even fake eyes so they seem to be looking at you. They look like tiny little dolls."

The first to be mummified at the catacombs were 16th-century monks of the Capuchin order, and their preservation took place inadvertently, likely through natural dehydration. The catacombs began accepting members of the public in the 18th century and continued the practice through the early 20th century. In all about 160 children are preserved there, which Piombino-Mascali says lends a poignant overtone to the study. "It is very upsetting when you deal with children in anthropology.” (Read more mummies stories.)

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