Mummies shedding light on smallpox
Remains in Lithuanian crypt give researchers new insight into spread of disease, says Daniel Boffey
The crypt under the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, has a vivid history. The coffins hidden in the gloomy lair under the church’s altar were stripped by Napoleon’s army for wood. During the second world war, the Nazis used it as a makeshift bomb shelter. And in their time as the local overlords, the Soviets converted the crypt into a museum of atheism.
Now Dario Piombino-Mascali is applying an altogether more gentle touch as he attempts to prise out the secrets of its ghostly inhabitants: 23 men, women and children who died in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and whose remains were mummified by the crypt’s cool temperature and gentle ventilation.
Flesh still covers their bones, there are clothes on their skin and organs remain in their chests. And Piombino-Mascali, an anthropologist from Italy, has found there are lessons to be learned for modern medicine from the diseases that killed these people.
The DNA sampled from the pelvis and legs of a mummified child, who died around 1643-1665 between the ages of two and four, has delivered the biggest find so far, offering scientists fresh insight into how smallpox evolved in the past and might mutate in the future. “We didn’t discover initially that this child had smallpox because the disease didn’t leave any sign,” PiombinoMascali says, talking in his office in Vilnius University, his back to a wall of skulls, some boxed up, others gurning back at visitors.
The value in the discovery, Piombino-Mascali says, is that scientists are now questioning the accepted understanding of when the killer virus, the cause of 500 million deaths worldwide, first emerged. It had been believed that smallpox emerged around the time of the Pharaohs and gradually mutated. But genetic researchers built a family tree of 49 modern strains and the child’s ancient one, and traced the evolution of them all back to common ancestors from 1530 and 1654.
The finding raises the question of where smallpox suddenly appeared from in the 16th century. Perhaps it jumped from animals from humans. Perhaps a dormant strain could still be found in animals, and make that deadly jump again. “You really need to know how these conditions develop and evolve through time,” Piombino-Mascali says.
Scientists are now questioning the accepted understanding of when the killer virus emerged
“It has been eradicated but the virus is kept by the US and Russian governments. That information might be valuable at some point. It’s always good to know what we can do.”
“We have also found tuberculosis,” PiombinoMascali adds. “Generally it is studied on the bones. But because the lungs were well preserved we were able to see the calcification of the lungs that is compatible with the presence of TB. There is an ongoing debate about the history of TB and we can do a genetic study now.
“We are working to identify both bacteria and viruses. There is a group in Helsinki working on the viruses found in the samples. We’ll find out more in September.”
However, for Piombino-Mascali himself, it is the insight into the habits and practices of the dead that has interested him most. “What I thought was really useful for our knowledge of disease was the discovery of the level of fat in the arteries: it was very severe,” he says.
“Many people believe that this is a disease of civilisation, brought on by sedentary behaviour, bad food, junk food.
“Actually we know the condition was present even before [the modern day] and in the specific case of Vilnius that is related to the diet of these people that was very poor in greens and vegetables and fruit. They were eating a lot of meat and cooking it in fat.”
Piombino-Mascali is careful in his work, and intensely aware that these are the remains of human beings. “Some look like they are just sleeping,” the anthropologist says.
He is also well aware of how easily the fragile lifelike remains can fall to dust. In the 1960s, the Russian forensic scientist Juozas Albinas Markulis, a Soviet spy who posed as a member of the anti-Nazi resistance, recorded that there were 500 bodies in the crypt, of which 200 were mummies.
The authorities, however, became concerned about a potential epidemic and ordered that many of them be sealed behind glass, where they wasted away to a pile of bones in what was known at the time as the chamber of death.
It is unclear why the 23 mummies intact today were saved from that fate, but Piombino-Mascali says he won’t be responsible for any further damage to what he regards as cultural treasures, as well as aids to scientific discovery. “I don’t do dissections – I don’t want to do that,” he says.
“I believe being dead doesn’t erase the humanity. I wouldn’t like to use the knife if bodies are complete. In that case I refused. I said no. Only if there are natural openings we will go inside, whether from decomposition, or damage,” he says.
Piombino-Mascali doesn’t visit the crypt these days. It’s difficult to get access from the priest, and he already has his samples.
But he doesn’t want the mummies’ stories to be lost. “They have to be exhibited in a decent proper way,” he says, “so that people can understand more about their history. I’ll keep working on that.”
Scientific sleuthing … left, the crypt of the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius; below, some of the mummies being studied