Se­crets of the crypt: mum­mies aid small­pox re­search

Cen­turies-old bod­ies have been pre­served by cold Re­mains may of­fer in­sight into how dis­eases evolved

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Daniel Bof­fey

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

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