A preliminary paleopathological account on the mummified and skeletonized remains from the Capuchin church of Santa Lucia del Mela, Italy (17th-19th centuries)

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The Capuchin church of Santa Lucia del Mela was built in 1610 in a prominent position, near the walls of this historic Sicilian village. This important architectural structure is associated with an underlying crypt and holds skeletonized and intentionally mummified remains of laymen and clergymen. Framed in the Sicily Mummy Project, a preliminary study was carried out aiming to infer biological and pathological features of the aforementioned human remnants. A total number of twenty-five wooden coffins, three of which were empty, and twenty-six wall niches containing commingled remains were observed. Opening the recesses and calculating the exact number of specimen was not possible at this time, although it was estimated a minimum number of forty-eight individuals (two non-adults and forty-six adult males and females). Nevertheless, pathological conditions in skeletal remains were observed and differential diagnosis was carried out via gross anatomical inspection. Severe osteoarthritis on tibiae and femurs, Schmorl’s node on a lumbar vertebra and spina bifida stood out among the disorders noticed. It is of paramount importance to document and study this small Sicilian population sample, shedding light on the mummies’ preparation techniques as well as on their lives and health. Further investigations and a thorough approach are intended.

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There exist numerous crypts and catacombs in churches and cemeteries that harbor mummified human remains. Due to burial customs these are most frequently detected in European countries, mostly as the result of spontaneous (natural) mummification. Beyond those mummies, occasionally artificial mummification has led to permanently preserved bodies. These were performed as either dry or wet type of embalming. All mummified human bodies may represent important information about life, living conditions, diseases, and causes of death in historic populations; they represent a “bio-archive.” Although many mummies seem to be present in numerous locations, only a small number of them have been as yet investigated scientifically. This scientific analysis has been performed by various techniques: anthropological examination, CT scans and/or X-rays, histology and isotope analysis, molecular studies for human and microbial DNA, paleobotany, and many more. In this chapter, the available observations from numerous locations in different countries have been compiled. In most instances, only data from series of mummified bodies have been collected; single mummies have only occasionally been considered. The series come from Italian and German churches, several findings from Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Lithuania, and isolated cases from almost every country.
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