Secrets of the crypt: mummies aid smallpox research
Centuries-old bodies have been preserved by cold Remains may offer insight into how diseases evolved
Medical researchers in Lithuania are examining naturally preserved mummies discovered in the vaults of a church in the heart of Vilnius to uncover the secrets of the diseases that killed them.
The coffins hidden in the gloomy lair under the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit’s altar contain the bodies of 23 men, women and children who died in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and whose remains were preserved by the crypt’s cool temperature and gentle ventilation.
DNA sampled from the pelvis and legs of a child who died sometime between 1643 and 1665, aged somewhere between two and four, has delivered the biggest find so far, offering scientists fresh insight into how smallpox has evolved in the past and might mutate in the future.
“We didn’t discover initially that this child had smallpox as the disease didn’t leave any sign,” said Dario Piombino-Mascali, an anthropologist from Sicily who now works at Vilnius University.
The value in the discovery, PiombinoMascali says, is that scientists are questioning the accepted understanding of when the virus, which has caused 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 – it is possible that it jumped from animals into humans. “You really need to know how these conditions develop and evolve through time,” Piombino-Mascali said. “That information might be valuable at some point. It’s always good to know what we can do.”
The church has a long and complex history. It was stripped by Napoleon’s army; then, during the second world war, the Nazis used it as a makeshift bomb shelter. The Soviets converted the crypt into a museum of atheism.
Flesh still covers the bones of the 23 bodies, there are clothes on their skin, and organs remain in their chests.
The researchers have also discovered tuberculosis. “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 TB. There is an ongoing debate about the history of TB and we can do a genetic study now,” Piombino-Mascali said.
A group in Helsinki working on the viruses found in the samples is due to report in September, he said.
Piombino-Mascali is intensely aware that these are the remains of people. “Some look as if they are just sleeping,” he said. He is also well aware of how easily the fragile remains can fall to dust.
In the 1960s, the Russian forensic scientist Juozas Albinas Markulis, a Soviet spy who posed as a surviving member of the anti-Nazi resistance, recorded that there were 500 bodies in the crypt, of which 200 had been well preserved.
The authorities, however, became concerned about an epidemic and ordered that many of them be sealed behind glass, where they wasted away.
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 – and aids to scientific discovery. “I don’t do dissections,” he said. “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.”
Piombino-Mascali doesn’t visit the crypt these days. He 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 understandmore about their history. I’ll keep working on that.”
‘Some look as if they are sleeping … I believe being dead doesn’t erase the humanity’
Dario Piombino-Mascali (in green) with one of the 23 bodies found in Vilnius