June 28, 2011 -- Hundreds of bodies stacked one of top of the other emerged during restoration work in the church of Roccapelago, a remote mountain village in north-central Italy.
About one-third of the mass grave, consisting of 281 bodies of adults, infants and children, turned out to be mummies.
"We found about 100 mummies. We can say that an entire community, who lived here from the mid-16th to the 18th centuries, has been naturally mummified. This is quite unique," Donato Labate and colleagues from the Archaeological Superintendency of Emilia Romagna said.
Found in the crypt of the church, the mummies have hands clasped in prayer and feature intact skin, tendons, and hair.
The bodies were unearthed fully dressed with tunics, thick socks and caps.
According to Iolanda Silvestri and Marta Cuoghi Costantini, ancient textile experts of the Institute for Cultural and Artistic Heritage of Emilia-Romagna, the clothes reveal a simple lifestyle.
"Forget silk or elaborate embroidery, these people were dressed for the mountains," the researchers said.
Made from wool, linen and cotton of different thickness,the clothes often featured simple laces with geometrical patterns at the wrists and neck.
The mummified bodies were accompanied by various personal items such as rings, necklaces, religious medallions and crucifixes in various materials -- gold, silver, wood, stone and glass.
The archaeologists also found some mummified mice, which probably died because of the toxic miasma generated by the mass burial.
The archaeologists also unearthed a well preserved letter. Known as "lettera componenda," it was supposed to serve as a sort of an agreement between God and the deceased. In the letter, the dead person asks for five pardons in exchange of prayers. The letter was found buried within the crypt and had probably been placed over one of the bodies.
Two openings in the church's wall ensured a constant airing within the crypt and helped the process of natural mummification.
The researchers believe that the crypt was initially used as a traditional grave, with bodies buried in the ground.
In a later period, dead people -- fully dressed and wrapped in bags or shrouds -- were dropped from a trap door in the floor of the church above.
Many bodies were found in very unusual postures. According to the researchers, the odd positions are due to the dropping from opening above. Most of the bodies were found stacked to form a pyramid. The top of this pyramid pile was in correspondence with the trap door above.
Study of the mummies, which has already started, reveals that several individuals were hard workers.
Further investigations will try to shed light on the community’s lifestyle, the diet, diseases and hygiene.
Research will include analysis of pathological conditions, osteological and histological examinations, investigations of teeth, DNA analysis, as well as the creation of 3D facial reconstruction of some of the most interesting mummies.
According to the researchers, the investigation is particularly interesting because it involves a small and rather isolated community of people whose lives centered around the church of Conversione di San Paolo Apostolo in Roccapelago, in the middle of the Emilia Romagna Apennines.
At the end of the study, some mummies will be displayed in the church. The other bodies will be moved from the laboratory in Ravenna where they are now being examined, and buried within the grounds of the 16th century church.