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In the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo

German Research Team Examines World’s Largest Collection of Mummies

It has always been a deeply rooted human need to give life a meaning after death. At the end of the 16th century, the friars of the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy, began preserving corpses by embalming them. Today, the catacombs under the monastery host the world’s largest collection of mummies. An interdisciplinary team of German researchers traveled to Palermo to examine this fascinating collection. One of their tools was a Leica stereomicroscope.


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Working at night

The two forensic biologists Dr. Mark Benecke and Kristina Baumjohann and archeologist Jörg Scheidt followed the invitation of the Capuchin friars to spend a week researching the preservation status of the mummies and gathering information on their backgrounds and how they were made. As the catacombs are open to the public during the day and as this is an important source of income for the friars, the researchers could only work at night.

Mummification rooms of tuff stone

The friars of the Capuchin monastery had acquired their mummification skills on their missionary voyages to South America and North Africa. Initially, they only applied them to their deceased brethren in Palermo. They first put the corpses in mummification rooms of tuff stone to dry. “Tuff stone is extremely porous and therefore absorbs large amounts of moisture,” explains forensic biologist Mark Benecke. “The bodies were left in the mummification rooms for a period of five to eight months. They were then moved out into the sun for further drying and finally cleaned with vinegar.”

The first body to be treated in this way that still exists today was that of brother Silvestro da Gubbio who died in 1599. From the end of the 18th century onwards, wealthy citizens of Palermo also had their bodies conserved after their death and displayed to the public. You had to be pretty rich to have the option of choosing the catacombs as your final resting place: The charge for a male adult in 1837 was about twelve ounces of gold – roughly equivalent to 55,000 euros today.

Mummies sorted according to profession

The mummies in the catacombs are sorted according to specific criteria. There is a corridor just for friars, one for priests and one each for various professions, e.g. doctors, professors, politicians and officers. Women are kept in a separate passage – with an area reserved exclusively for virgins. In another separate room that many visitors may find most disconcerting are the mummies of 38 boys and girls of various ages.

The focus of forensic biologist Kristina Baumjohann’s studies was the observation of insect traces. “You wouldn’t expect mummies to be as skeletonized as the ones in the catacombs of Palermo,” she reports. “The facial orifices show signs of insect infestation such as maggot burrows.” The biologist also collected all the insect fragments she found on the mummies for later examination under the stereomicroscope in the laboratory.  

Archeological and forensic approach

The archeologist Jörg Scheidt adopted a totally different approach to that of the two forensic biologists. His aim was to document the present state of the mummies and to find out as much as possible about their background and origins. Scheidt’s research was hampered by the fact that many of the signs giving information on the dead bodies had been destroyed in past fires and flooding. He gained a lot of information by analyzing the textiles in which the mummies had been re-clothed after the conservation process. “Many of the mummies were dressed in their Sunday best after embalming,” the archeologist explains. “Sometimes, relatives also came into the catacombs to give them a change of clothes.”  

The two forensic biologists also wanted to find out the extent of damage to the mummies and how it had been caused. In the catacombs under the Capuchin monastery the mummies are stored at a temperature of 25°C and over 80 per cent relative humidity. “This warm and damp climate is not ideal,” says Benecke. “The storage conditions are probably one of the reasons why some of the bodies are in such a poor condition. However, the preservation state of the mummies varies tremendously – some are almost completely skeletonized and others still have large amounts of tissue and even hair. This may be because they were stored differently or because the friars improved their skills over the years.”

“World’s most beautiful mummy”

The best preserved mummy is definitely that of Rosalia Lombardo, also known as the most beautiful mummy in the world. The girl died of Spanish flu in 1920 at the age of two. Actually, the Palermo government had forbidden burials in the Capuchin crypt in 1881. However, Rosalia’s father, an influential and wealthy general, was in such despair that he did everything in his power to have his daughter’s body embalmed there. For many years, scientists puzzled over the way the little girl had been conserved. A manuscript in the estate of a famous embalmer, Alfredo Salafia, revealed the secret: Rosalia’s blood had been substituted by a mixture of one third glycerin, one third formaldehyde enriched with zinc sulfate and chlorides and one third salicylic acid. The famous mummy now lies in a hermetically sealed coffin to protect it from the climatic conditions.   

Insect colonization immediately after death

At the end of their research in the Capuchin crypt, the scientists were able to look back on an exciting week of hard work. Forensic biologist Kristina Baumjohann had examined over 700 mummies in this time. “Nearly half of them showed insect traces,” she reports. “This suggested that many corpses were exposed to insect attack before they were embalmed.” Back in their Cologne laboratory, Baumjohann and Benecke examined the insect fragments under the Leica MZ 12.5 stereomicroscope. Their supposition was confirmed: “Many of the mummies were exposed to insect colonization directly after death, probably outside the catacombs and in the open air. Mummification measures to preserve dead bodies were only taken in exceptional cases. The insects we found on the mummies can be roughly divided into two categories: insects that indicate typical postmortal colonization and insects that are characteristic of situations where corpses are kept in churches,“ Baumjohann explains.

Site threatened by decay

The biologist sees her cooperation in the project as an extremely enriching experience for her personally. “It was the first time I was allowed to work on mummies, and it was very interesting. The teamwork with my colleagues was incredibly valuable and highly enjoyable – we learnt a lot from each other. I always love working in an interdisciplinary team, as it’s a unique opportunity to put many little pieces of mosaic together to get the whole picture while widening one’s own horizon at the same time. It was also interesting to look behind the scenes at the monastery and to see how the friars trusted us and the work we were doing.”

Scheidt photographed every single mummy. He took 1100 pictures in all, which are on display to the public. Counting the ones that are thought to be lying in coffins under tombstones, the number of mummies totals over 2000. Scheidt says his stay in Palermo was a terrific experience: “The work in the catacombs was fantastic, the whole site is unique worldwide. I’ll never forget being given the opportunity to participate in this project, particularly as I had the chance to work with outstanding scientists. However, I was horrified by the state of the catacombs. The site and the mummies must be preserved at all costs – there’s a lot of work to be done,” the archeologist comments.

Desire to restore the mummies

The research team would like to continue its work. However, they would need a far greater arsenal of examination equipment. Scheidt reports: “We’d like to combine the whole thing with a restoration of the mummies and the monastery. But for such a major project we would need more support. Without the help of the University of Palermo and considerably more funding, a project of this scale is unfortunately utopian. However, we won’t give up hope.”