Scientists have embarked on a mission to unravel the mystery behind dozens of horrific baby mummies buried in an underground cemetery in Sicily.
The remains of some of the 163 children buried in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo will be examined using X-rays.
They are among 1,284 naturally mummified and partially skeletal bodies piled along its crypts and chambers dating back to the 1590s.
The children are believed to have died between 1787 and 1880, but little is known about who they were and how they died.
Some of them – stored in a heartbreaking “Children’s Chapel” – are so well preserved that they are said to look like little sleeping dolls.
Dr Kirsty Squires, from Staffordshire University, will lead the first attempt to tell their story using an X-ray scanner.
The two-year study, beginning next week, will look at the identities and levels of health and disease in 41 cadavers.
“We want to better understand the health and development of babies who have been given the ritual mummification,” Squires told The Sun.
“We know they are middle class but we don’t know if they are more or less likely to have certain diseases or have stunted growth.”
The Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo are the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe.
Many of the bodies left there are skeletonised, but some are so well preserved that their skin, hair, and clothes are still intact.
The tomb was originally intended for monks of the Capuchin order but was later opened to members of the public.
At the time, becoming a mummy was a status symbol and “a way to maintain status and dignity even in death.”
“The mummification process at this site was seen as a sign of sophistication and wealth,” Squires told The Sun.
“It was a way to maintain their social character after death.”
Squires added that the team will take a portable X-ray scanner and take hundreds of pictures of children from different angles.
They will use the scans to determine the sex and age of each child, as well as to look for evidence of developmental defects, trauma, and disease.
Dr Dario Piombino Mascali, who is also working on the project, told the Guardian that some of the children were “remarkably well preserved” and appeared to be “very small dolls”.
He said, “Some really look like sleeping children. They have gotten dark over time but some of them have fake eyes so they seem to be looking at you.”
Piombino-Mascali added that dealing with children in anthropology was “disturbing,” saying, “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.”
The mummies are part of the Sicilian heritage and are on display to the general public and tourists.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and is reproduced here with permission.