The Mysterious Way the Dead Were Mummified In Italy

In the 17th century, a spectacular discovery was discovered in the tiny, walled town of Venzone in Italy. Several mummified remains were discovered in the crypt of the local chapel, but how they got there remained unknown. Archaeologists have been captivated by the natural mummification process that occurred after their retrieval from the vault. It is still a mystery today.

The mummies were spotted during construction

Following the Friuli earthquake of 1976, the Venzone Mummies were moved to a temporary shelter. (Photo Credit: YukioSanjo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1647, workers were constructing the town’s cathedral when they discovered the first mummy. They were excavating in the crypt to extend the 14th-century chapel when they uncovered the burial beneath the floor.

The mummy they uncovered was in an unusual condition. It was built in the 1300s when the tomb was initially constructed. The corpse was devoid of fluids, and its skin had dried to the consistency of parchment paper. This first mummy weighed roughly 33 pounds and had a bent back, earning it the moniker “Gobbo” (meaning hunchback). Because they couldn’t retrieve Gobbo safely, construction workers left it where it was.

More mummies were discovered

Mummies of Venzone, 14th-19th century, preserved in the crypt of the Chapel of St Michael, Venzone, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, ca 1910.

Later, up to 40 additional mummies were discovered in the crypt. They all weighed between 22 and 44 pounds and had one thing in common: they were entirely dried out and preserved. They were not retrieved from the tomb and moved above ground until the nineteenth century. The mummies were then taken to the Vienna Museum, the University Cabinet of Padua, and the Church of the Invalides in Paris.

When the mummies were discovered at Venzone, twenty-one of them were in the Upper Chapel above the crypt. However, the town was devastated by a major earthquake in 1976. It was so powerful that it entirely flattened numerous structures in the neighborhood. Six of the 21 mummies held in the chapel were destroyed due to the deterioration of the church. The remaining 15 are still in Venzone, which has been restored over time.

How were the mummies so naturally well preserved?

Crypt in the Chapel of St Michael with the Mummies of Venzone, 14th-19th century, crypt in the Chapel of St Michael, Venzone, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, photograph from Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, Bergamo, 1910-1913.

Because these remains were not meant to be mummified, the procedure had to have happened spontaneously. The natural mummification process, according to researchers, began one year following their burial. Researchers are still puzzled as to how it happened. Multiple ideas have been proposed to explain how these bodies dried out completely but their skin remained extraordinarily well preserved.

For starters, there was an unknown fungus in the crypt where the mummies were discovered. The fungus was found on the tomb walls and the mummies’ coffins, and its propensity to absorb large volumes of moisture suggested that it may have played a role in the drying process. The fungus was called Hypha combined after the tomb where it was discovered.

Others have dismissed this notion, claiming that there just wasn’t enough fungus in the tomb to absorb the massive amount of fluids and preserve the dead so well. Instead, it has been proposed that the crypt’s limestone floor offered the ideal environment for mummification. Some speculate that it was a mixture of both things.

No more samples, no conclusive answers

Mummies of Venzone. Preserved in the crypt of the Saint-Michel chapel. (Photo Credit: Jean-Marc Pascolo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, it does not appear like a final response will be forthcoming anytime soon. The mummies are sacred to the Venzone people, and archaeologists have long been refused access to their bodies. Religious and personal considerations have kept people in charge from interfering with the corpses.

As a result, researchers wanting to learn how the mummies were kept naturally have few alternatives for their investigation. They have access to the actual samples gathered during the extraction and transportation of the numerous mummies, but very little can be deduced from them. They might also attempt to recreate the conditions in the crypt where the mummies were discovered. Unfortunately, this has likewise proven to be incredibly difficult and has not been properly achieved.

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