Category Archives: ITALY

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

The 200-year-old secrets of the child mummies of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo in northern Sicily are to be revealed by a British-led team of scientists using X-ray technology.

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy
Catacombs of Palermo

Dr Kirsty Squires, of Staffordshire University, will head a first attempt to tell the stories of some of the 163 children whose remains lie within the corridors and crypts of the famous underground tomb.

The Catacombs contain 1,284 mummified and skeletonised bodies, the largest collection of mummies in Europe. While many of the children contained there are now skeletal, others have been described as appearing as if they are sleeping.

Scientists Hope to Solve the Mystery of 163 Child Mummies Discovered in Italy

The two-year investigation will focus on the children who died between 1787 and 1880 and, initially, on 41 bodies residing within a bespoke “child chapel”.

None of the children’s identity, cause of death and medical history is known, and descriptive tags attached to them have long eroded away.

It is hoped that a better picture of the children’s lives and passing will be revealed by cross-referencing the anatomical findings with archival records, including two books containing names and years of death.

“We are going in January to carry out our fieldwork,” Squires said. “We will take a portable X-ray unit and take hundreds of images of the children from different angles.

“We are hoping to better understand their development, health and identity, comparing the biological fundings with the more cultural kind of things: the way the individuals have been mummified and the clothes they are wearing as well.”

The catacombs, once solely for the deceased friars of the Capuchin order, have become a popular, if macabre, tourist attraction, with every niche and crevice bearing bodies on open display. The preserved dead were often dressed in their finery and would be visited by their relatives.

The friars first established themselves at the church of Santa Maria della Pace in 1534. They created a mass grave for their dead which opened like a tank under an altar but, when that became full, the deceased was held in a vault, or charnel house, while a new crypt was dug.

When it came to relocating the bodies from the overfull vault, 45 of the deceased friars exhumed were found to have been naturally mummified, with their faces recognisable, a development that was taken to be an act of God.

Rather than bury the remains, the bodies were displayed as relics, propped in niches along the walls of the first corridor of the new cemetery. In 1787, a letter was published stating that everyone, including children, in the region had the right to be accommodated in the catacombs after death.

Almost all the research until today has been on the adult mummies, excepting a headline-grabbing examination of Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia a week shy of her second birthday on 6 December 1920.

Her startlingly complete preservation was investigated a decade ago by Dr Dario Piombino-Mascali, who is working with Squires on the latest project at the catacombs.

He said: “Many of the mummies are a result of natural dehydration. Other mummies were chemically treated. Those chemically treated are normally better preserved.

“Some of them are superbly preserved. Some really look like sleeping children. 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.

“Of course, you want to do something to preserve them and to make sure their stories are told and give a sense that they are children. It is very upsetting when you deal with children in anthropology.”

Radiographic images – 14 per mummy, from head-to-toe – will be taken and examined by Dr Robert Loynes, a retired orthopaedic surgeon who has previously investigated ancient Egyptian mummies. Piombino-Mascali said it was vital that the work on the fragile corpses was “non-invasive”.

Images will be drawn by an artist from Los Angeles, Eduardo Hernandez, who will produce illustrations for use in educational leaflets for handing out at the catacombs and elsewhere. The project has received over £70,000 in funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. The last bodies interned in the catacombs died in the early 20th century.

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome

Because of its long history, Rome has often yielded archaeological treasures in the most unexpected of places.

Terracotta Dog Unearthed in Rome
An ancient statue of a dog discovered in December may have once been positioned on a sloping roof.

The latest of these riches is an ancient dog statue, which was discovered during work on Rome’s water system just before Christmas.

An arm of the Italian Ministry of Culture devoted to archaeological endeavours announced the find on January 1, saying that the dog statue was found in the city’s Appio Latino district, which is also home to ancient Roman villas and an array of burial structures. Along with the statue, three tombs were also found.

According to the Ministry of Culture, one of the tombs seemed to contain evidence that a fire had taken place there, which may explain why it fell out of use.

The tombs were once part of a larger funerary complex built sometime between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.

The dog statue, as well as an urn, were found about half a meter below street level, which means that these archaeological objects were essentially right underneath current-day Romans’ feet.

Fashioned out of terra cotta, the statue looks a lot like forms that once appeared as part of drainage systems on sloping rooftops.

Because this one has no holes in that water could pass through, however, the statue was likely intended just as a cute canine decoration.

In a statement, Daniela Porro, the special superintendent of Rome, said, “Once again Rome shows important traces of the past in all its urban fabric.”

Mysterious footprints suggest Neanderthals climbed a volcano right after it erupted

Mysterious footprints suggest Neanderthals climbed a volcano right after it erupted

According to legend, the devil once took a walk down the side of a volcano in southern Italy, each step preserved forever in solid rock. The tracks are known as the “Ciampate del Diavolo“‘ or “Devil’s Trail” – but details published in 2020 reveal a less diabolical yet far more interesting story on how they came to be.

The mysterious footprints are well known to those living near Roccamonfina, an extinct volcano in southern Italy that hasn’t erupted in tens of thousands of years. Since 2001, researchers have sought to explain the dozens of impressions left by a small group of human ancestors and even a few animals snaking their way down the mountainside.

But a paper published in January 2020 suggested some individuals were actually heading back up. Over recent years numerous expeditions have provided detailed measurements on a total of 67 indentations left by the scuffle of feet, hands, and legs, all divided across three distinct tracks headed away from the mountain’s summit.

Thanks to the contributions by a team of scientists from institutes across Italy, we obtained details on a further 14 prints – these even larger than the others – some of which head up the mountain rather than down.

Radiometric and geological dating of the various rock strata has already established that the imprints were cast in the soft blanket of ash left in the wake of an eruption around 350,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest preserved human footprints on record.

But just who left these tracks? It’s impossible to say for certain based on an assortment of dull shapes pressed awkwardly in time-worn volcanic sediment.

There seemed to be at least five different bodies behind the marks. Further investigations could help whittle down ideas on the sex, body mass, and perhaps even heights of the trekkers.

Given our own Homo sapiens ancestors developed their characteristic traits only 315,000 years ago, we can be pretty confident they weren’t members of our own species.

But the researchers have some clues.

One of the clearer imprints provides clear evidence of a grown human male.

And the shapes of many of the footprints point to an interesting possibility. The broad nature of the hindfoot area, with the low rise of the arch, looks suspiciously like the feet of individuals buried in the Sima de Los Huesos “Pit of Bones”.

Mysterious footprints suggest Neanderthals climbed a volcano right after it erupted
Footprints on the Ciampate del Diavolo.

The owners of those 430,000-year-old remains have been a topic of debate of the years, progressing from Homo heidelbergensis to Neanderthal, to Denisovan, back to Neanderthal.

Assuming they truly are Neanderthals, it’s reasonable – even if not solid – to bet that the footprints were left by a gang of young Neanderthal adults.

Still, the researchers were careful about jumping to conclusions.

“We have decided to keep the attribution to a specific species still pending,” lead researcher Adolfo Panarello told New Scientist’s Michael Marshall back in January 2020.

Just what inspired an ancient group of hominids to go trouncing through the cooling soot and debris after the mountain violently blew its lid is anybody’s guess, though it’s clear from the impressions that nobody was in a hurry.

Based on the leisurely pace of around 1 meter per second (3.2 feet per second), the handful of footsteps heading uphill, and a scattering of basalt artefacts found in the vicinity, we might imagine this was just another day in the life by an active volcano.

Slowly treading barefoot through material freshly deposited by a 300 degree Celsius (572 Fahrenheit) flow of billowing pyroclastic insanity isn’t exactly for the faint-hearted either, no matter how tough your soles might be.

Going on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the researchers estimated the blanket would need to have cooled to at least 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), meaning at least several hours needed to have passed between an eruption and the trek.


We might well imagine members of a community living in the shadow of a mountain known to occasionally spew out hot clouds of poisonous gas and muddy ash, with a small band setting across a familiar path to check out the carnage.

Perhaps disaster tourism isn’t a recent thing, after all.

This research was published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

U.S. Repatriates Looted Artifacts to Italy

U.S. Repatriates Looted Artifacts to Italy

Italy’s culture minister on Thursday welcomed the return of 201 prized antiquities valued at over 10 million euros ($11 million) that had been located in prestigious U.S. museums and galleries after being illegally trafficked in recent decades.

They were among thousands of antiquities seized from traffickers or returned to Italy this year in major operations that also targeted trafficking rings in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.

Of the 201 works returned by U.S. officials earlier this month, 161 have been repatriated to Italy while 40 are on exhibit at the Italian Consulate General in New York through March 2022.

“These artworks will not end up, as has happened many times in the past, all in one big museum,” Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told a press conference. Instead, they will be returned to the places where they were stolen for display in museums there.

“This too is a great homecoming operation that will add value to our extraordinary country as a vast museum.

They are artworks of absolute importance that will attract people to those places and territories,” Franceschini said.

The U.S. haul includes 96 pieces that had been in the collection of the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Art, including ancient pottery and amphora; a terracotta statue titled dating from the 4th century BC seized from a New York gallery; and six items returned from the Getty Museum, including a large ceramic Etruscan vessel.

The Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University surrendered about a hundred looted antiquities to the Manhattan D.A., including this hydria, or water jar, featuring the labours of Hercules.

Most of the stolen cache was traced to the activities of Edoardo Almagia, an Italian native who was living in New York.

Charges against him in Italy in 2006 were thrown out due to the statute of limitations, but a judge in Rome in 2013 ordered the seizure of all his antiquities in both New York and Naples.

He remains at large in Italy, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

One major operation secured nearly 800 objects from ancient Daunia, which was located in the Gargano peninsula in northern Puglia, while another broke up a trafficking ring of artefacts from southern Italian civilizations operating in northern Europe.

Thirteen people are under investigation in that case, which led to the recovery of 2,000 artefacts.

Possible World War II Wreckage Uncovered in Sicily

Possible World War II Wreckage Uncovered in Sicily

An archaeological dig in Sicily has uncovered traces of a lost World War II American heavy bomber shot down in 1943, and possible human remains that could lead to the identification of five airmen whose bodies were never recovered.

Possible World War II Wreckage Uncovered in Sicily
American B-25 bombers flying over southern France in 1943

The six-week dig that ended this week was carried out by a team from the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which locates and identifies missing U.S. military personnel around the world.

The site near Sciacca was identified in 2017 by investigators using historical records and metal detectors.

This year’s dig uncovered wreckage “consistent only to a B-25 aircraft,” said archaeologist Clive Vella, the scientific director of the expedition, contributing to hopes that any confirmed remains would be linked to the missing crew.

“We owe (their) families accurate answers,” Vella told the Associated Press Thursday.

The North American B-25 Mitchell heavy bomber with a crew of six was one of 52 air losses with missing personnel in the area during WWII, mostly during 1943 as the Allies pushed into southeastern Sicily.

It was shot down as it targeted a camouflaged German airstrip amid olive groves and pastureland on July 10, 1943. A German military report documented the crash of a U.S. aircraft about two kilometres (just over a mile) from the Sciacca airport, Vella said.

One crew member was located immediately and buried in the town’s cemetery. The body was claimed in 1944 by U.S. military officials, but the other five airmen remained missing.

In the intervening decades, the crash site “like most others in the Mediterranean region, was scavenged for metal, the land restored to its original use,” Vella said. “The scars of a crash were mostly gone.”

The evidence, which includes possible human bones as well as potential remnants of the aircraft, has been transported to a laboratory in the U.S. for examination.

Worldwide, there are more than 81,600 missing U.S. military personnel, including 72,350 from World War II, 7,550 from the Korean War and 1,584 from the Vietnam War.

Over 41,000 of the total are presumed lost at sea.

Detectorist finds 10,000 Roman coins in Huntingdon hoard

Detectorist finds 10,000 Roman coins in Huntingdon hoard

A hoard of almost 10,000 Roman coins has been found in two pottery containers, nested inside each other “a bit like Russian dolls”. They were discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, in spring 2018.

All the 9,724 coins were made of base metal and were probably hidden at a time of turmoil in the wake of the 3rd Century breakaway empire.

The “muddy hoard” was taken to the British Museum for conservation.

The coins were removed from the pot in three layers

The county’s finds liaison officer Helen Fowler said the detectorist initially unearthed one copper-alloy coin.

“Then a few more were found and as the number of signals from the detector increased, so did the concentration of the spread of the coins,” she said.

“Before the end of the day the finder had dug down and seen the top of a hoard of coins.”

Other Gallic Empire emperors include Postumus, Tetricus I and II, Victorinus, Marcus Aurelius Marius and Domitanus II

The detectorist, who had the landowner’s permission for the search, promptly covered it up and reported the find.

Miss Fowler and the British Museum’s Dr Andrew Brown spent two days excavating the hoard, which had originally been hidden in two pottery containers, “one nested directly inside the other, a bit like Russian dolls”, she said.

She suspects the inner pot had started to crack under the weight of the coins, so a second larger pot was required.

The experts nicknamed it the “muddy hoard”, she added.

The find took two days to excavate before being taken to the British Museum for sorting and conservation

The coins date to AD251-74 and are believed to have been hidden in the wake of the reconquest of the breakaway Gallic Empire.

It had been established in AD260 and ruled Britain, Gaul (roughly modern-day France) and Spain until Emperor Aurelian reunited the Empire in AD274.

Now the hoard has been declared treasure by Cambridgeshire Coroner’s Court, it is awaiting independent valuation.

Two Cambridgeshire museums have expressed interest in acquiring the hoard.

British Museum experts said most of the coins were imitations, made at a time when official coinage was in short supply

Evolution of Personhood: Earliest Adorned Female Infant Burial in Europe Reveals Significant Insights

Evolution of Personhood: Earliest Adorned Female Infant Burial in Europe Reveals Significant Insights

Ten thousand years ago, just after the last Ice Age, a group of hunter-gatherers buried an infant girl in a cave in what is now Italy. They entombed her with a rich selection of their treasured beads and pendants, and an eagle-owl talon, signalling their grief and showing that even the youngest females were recognized as full persons in their society.

The excavations and analysis of the discovery are published this week in Nature Scientific Reports and offer insight into the early Mesolithic period, from which few recorded burials are known.

Claudine Gravel-Miguel, the postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and co-author on the paper, performed the analysis of the ornaments, which includes over 60 pierced shell beads and four shell pendants.

Evolution of Personhood: Earliest Adorned Female Infant Burial in Europe Reveals Significant Insights
The mouth of the Arma Veirana cave, a site in the Ligurian mountains of northwestern Italy.

Mortuary practices offer a window into the worldviews and social structure of past societies. Child funerary treatment provides important insights into who was considered a person and afforded the attributes of an individual self, moral agency and eligibility for group membership. The seemingly “egalitarian” funerary treatment of this infant female, whom the team nicknamed “Neve,” shows that as early as 10,000 years ago in Western Europe, even the youngest females were recognized as full persons in their society.

“The evolution and development of how early humans buried their dead as revealed in the archaeological record have enormous cultural significance,” said Jamie Hodgkins, ASU doctoral graduate and paleoanthropologist at the University of Colorado Denver.

The excavation

Arma Veirana, a cave in the Ligurian pre-Alps of northwestern Italy, is a popular spot for local families to visit. Looters also discovered the site, and their digging exposed the late Pleistocene tools that drew researchers to the area.

The research team started surveying the site in 2015 and discovered the remains during the last week of the 2017 field season. The team of project coordinators includes Italian collaborators Fabio Negrino from the University of Genoa and Stefano Benazzi from the University of Bologna, as well as researchers from the University of Montreal, Washington University, University of Ferrara, University of Tubingen and ASU Institute of Human Origins.

The first two excavation seasons were spent near the mouth of the cave, exposing stratigraphic layers that contained tools over 50,000 years old typically associated with Neandertals in Europe (Mousterian tools).

They also found the remains of ancient meals such as the cut-marked bones of wild boars and elk and bits of charred fat. In addition, they found stone tools that were much more recent and that had likely been eroding from deeper inside the cave. To better understand the stratigraphy of the cave and document its occupation history, the team opened new sections further inside the cave in 2017.

As the team explored this new section, they began to unearth pierced shell beads, which Hodgkins examined more carefully back in the lab.

Illustration showing the placement of beads and shells along with the cranium.

A few days after they found the first bead, one of the excavators uncovered a small piece of the infant’s cranial vault.

“I was excavating in the adjacent square and remember looking over and thinking, ‘That’s a weird bone,’” Gravel-Miguel said. “It quickly became clear that not only we were looking at a human cranium, but that it was also of a very young individual. It was an emotional day.”

Using dental tools and a small paintbrush, researchers spent that week and the following field season carefully exposing the whole skeleton, which was adorned with articulated lines of pierced shell beads.

“The excavation techniques are state-of-the-art and leave no doubt to the associations of the materials with the skeleton,” said Curtis Marean, who was not involved in the study. Marean is associate director of the Institute of Human Origins and Foundation Professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Important changes in human prehistory

In a series of analyses coordinated across multiple institutions and numerous experts, the team uncovered critical details about the ancient burial. Radiocarbon dating determined that the child lived 10,000 years ago, and amelogenin protein analysis and ancient DNA revealed that the infant was a female belonging to a lineage of European women known as the U5b2b haplogroup.

“There’s a decent record of human burials before around 14,000 years ago,” Hodgkins said. “But the latest Upper Paleolithic period and earliest part of the Mesolithic are more poorly known when it comes to funerary practices. Infant burials are especially rare, so Neve adds important information to help fill this gap.”

“The Mesolithic is particularly interesting,” said co-author Caley Orr, ASU doctoral graduate and paleoanthropologist and anatomist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “It followed the end of the final Ice Age and represents the last period in Europe when hunting and gathering was the primary way of making a living. So, it’s a really important time period for understanding human prehistory.”

Detailed virtual histology, or study of the tissue and structure, of the infant’s teeth, showed that she died 40 to 50 days after birth and that she experienced stress that briefly halted the growth of her teeth 47 days and 28 days before she was born. Carbon and nitrogen analyses of the teeth revealed that the baby’s mother had been nourishing the infant in her womb on a land-based diet.

The child as a member of the community

Gravel-Miguel performed an analysis of the ornaments adorning the infant, which demonstrated the care invested in each piece and showed that many of the ornaments exhibited wear that proves they were passed down to the child from group members. The details of this research — along with further results — are the focus of a separate article, currently under review.

Citing a similar burial of two infants dating to 11,500 years ago at Upward Sun River, Alaska, Hodgkins said the funerary treatment of Neve suggests that the recognition of infant females as full persons has deep origins in a common ancestral culture that was shared by peoples who migrated into Europe and those who migrated to North America. Or it may have arisen in parallel in populations across the planet.

The research, excavation and analysis were made possible with funding from The Wenner-Gren Foundation, Leakey Foundation, National Geographic Society Waitt Program, Hyde Family Foundations, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, and the Max Planck Society.

Princely tomb of Iron Age mystery man discovered in Italy. And there’s a chariot inside

Princely tomb of Iron Age mystery man discovered in Italy. And there’s a chariot inside.

A lavish ‘Princely tomb’ belonging to an Iron Age man was found in Italy full of treasures including a bronze helmet, weapons and a whole chariot. The tomb of a pre-Roman prince has been saved from ‘imminent’ destruction after aerial photos revealed the ancient treasure trove before it could be built over.  

The body of the unidentified prince has not been found and no mound remains to mark his resting place – it may have been lost while the site was used for farming. The hoard, found in Corinaldo, Italy, was on the site of a future sports complex and wasn’t spotted until a survey of the land was carried out before the building started. 

The value of the discovery and the site is now being assessed before any decision over whether to move the tomb or move the sports complex is made. 

Inside the tomb archaeologists found the remains of a complete chariot, it’s chassis can be seen on the outer edge of this block, as well as weapons and armour
Princely tomb of Iron Age mystery man discovered in Italy. And there's a chariot inside.
The full study of the pottery and other finds within the tomb, including the chassis of what was likely a chariot (seen here) will likely prompt entirely new insights into the cultural, trading and gift-exchange relationships of the aristocracy in the area
‘Aerial photography led to the first identification of the site,’ said Professor Boschi. The grey area in this photo highlights where the tomb was found

The tomb is believed to date back to the seventh century BC when it was constructed for a prince of the largely-unknown Piceni people, whose land was eventually annexed by Rome in 268 BC. 

‘We identified circular crop marks, comparable to large funerary ring ditches,’ said Federica Boschi, an archaeologist at the University of Bologna. 

‘A large and slightly off-centre pit contained an extraordinary collection of cultural material.’

It is the only discovery of its kind in the region, the archaeologist confirmed.

 ‘As the first such monument identified and excavated in northern Marche this has provided an extraordinary opportunity to investigate a site of the Piceni culture,’ said Professor Boschi. 

‘Until now, this culture has been poorly documented and little understood despite its undoubted importance in the pre-Roman development of the area.’ 

She added: ‘The recovery from complete obscurity and imminent danger of archaeological material of this scale and importance is a rare event within contemporary European archaeology.’ 

The body of the unidentified prince has not been found and no mound remains to mark his resting place – possibly both were destroyed during the land’s long history of agricultural use. 

Nonetheless, Professor Boschi believes that the lavish tomb is evidenced enough of his status. 

She said: ‘The extraordinarily rich funerary deposit testifies to a high-status tomb dedicated to a princely leader within the early Iron Age society of the region.

‘One outstanding find among the hundred or more ceramic vessels recovered from the pit was an olla imported from ancient Daunia. 

‘This undoubtedly symbolises the commemorated leader’s significant political, military and economic power. 

‘The full study of the pottery and other finds will undoubtedly prompt entirely new insights into the cultural, trading and gift-exchange relationships of the aristocracy in the area.’ 

After seeing aerial photos of the tomb site, archaeologists initially performed a resistivity survey, where electrical currents are run through the ground to see if anything metallic is buried there. 

‘Aerial photography led to the first identification of the site,’ said Professor Boschi. 

‘A resistivity survey then provided an initial understanding of the extent and internal articulation of the funerary area, including a third ring-ditch not revealed by the aerial photographs. 

‘A targeted geomagnetic survey then produced significant information about the survival of the underground deposits, providing supporting secure evidence for a massive deposit of ironwork.’

It’s not entirely clear what will happen to the site next, whether the tomb and its contents will be moved or whether a new home will be found for the sports centre. The findings have to be properly valued, both for their financial worth and their cultural worth, before anything can happen.

‘The next steps are going to move toward the valorization and public fruition of the site within and in agreement with the project of the new sports complex,’ said Professor Boschi.