As a series of terrible epidemics – now known as the Plague of Cyprian – wiped out hordes of ancient Egyptians, some writers of the time thought the world was coming to an end.
Working at the funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the west bank of the ancient city of Thebes (modern day Luxor) in Egypt, the team of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) found bodies covered with a thick layer of lime. They also found three kilns where the lime was produced, as well as a giant bonfire containing human remains, where many of the plague victims were cremated.
Oil lamps were discovered near the lime kilns
From 250 to 271 AD up to 5,000 people died each day in Rome not from war and famine, but from a deadly pandemic known as the ‘Plague of Cyprian’, after a bishop in Carthage who wrote of its symptoms, writes director of MAIL, Francesco Tiradritti, in the latest issue of Egyptian Archaeology.
Tiradritti’s team uncovered the remains of this disposal operation between 1997 and 2012. The monument his team excavated was originally built in the seventh century BC for a grand steward named Harwa, and it was continually used until it became a plague-burial site in the third Century AD – and was then never used again.
The use of the complex “for the disposal of infected corpses gave the monument a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century,” Tiradritti writes.
Cyprian left a stomach-churning record of what the victims suffered before they died. “The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength [and] a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth),” he wrote in Latin in a work called “De mortalitate”.
The “intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting, [and] the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” he wrote, adding that “in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction …”
This image shows a face of second century AD coffin from this area
Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end. While the world did not end, the plague weakened the Roman Empire. “It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in AD 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in AD 270,” claims Tiradritti.
The desperation involved in the Luxor disposal is suggested by the fact the Italian researchers found no signs that victims were given any kind of religious rites before they were burned.
“We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime,” Tiradritti told Live Science. “They had to dispose of them without losing any time.
The plague may have been some form of smallpox or measles, according to modern day scientists. If the plague was indeed smallpox it would have been just one of many outbreaks throughout human history until the often-fatal disease was eliminated globally in 1979 as a result of a worldwide vaccination campaign.
While the discovery of human remains associated with the plague will give anthropologists new material to study, Tiradritti cautions they will not be able to extract DNA from the bodies.
A view of lime kiln which has a double chamber and was build to provide enough disinfectant to cover the human remains of victims from the epidemic in the ancient city of Thebes
While stories about researchers extracting DNA from mummies have made headlines in recent years, Tiradritti told Live Science he doesn’t believe the results from such ancient specimens. “In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed,” he said.
The discovery of the body disposal site is just one part of the team’s research. Thebes is a massive site containing a vast necropolis, and the excavations of the MAIL are providing new data that allows scholars to determine how it changed between the seventh century BC and today.
The funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru, which the MAIL has been excavating since 1995, is one of the largest private funerary monuments of Egypt.
Source: Live Science
Photos by F. Tiradritti & N. Cijan © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS.