Friday, August 13, 2010

Wherefore art thou, Dario?

In the catacombs and crypts of Sicily, of course! My friend Dario Piombino Mascali is an Italian anthropologist and bioarchaeologist who is coordinating the Sicily Mummy Project. He is pictured here nose to nose with one of the mummies in the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo (click for excellent slideshow by photojournalist Fabrizio Villa), where little Rosalia Lombardo lies. Funded by National Geographic, Dario discovered the embalming formula used to preserve her body so perfectly. Other more typical Sicilian mummies Dario has examined include R. Stancanelli (1868) and J.B. Racuja (1873) in Novara di Sicilia and several 18th c. mummies in a crypt in San Marco d'Alunzio. Mummification and exposure was a privileged form of burial in southern Italy and was achieved by placing the corpse in a colatoio, which translates as a colander, but refers to a room or fixture in which the remains were drained of fluids. Placement on a horizontal colatoio such as a wooden dessication rack (2nd image) favored mummification, while being propped up in a sitting colatoio like a dehydration niche (3rd image) favored skeletonization, so that skull and bones could be stored in ossuaries. Visitors report that the draining room (where the liquids of the bodies were naturally wicked away by the well-ventilated conditions) and the drying room (where they were cleaned and dressed) are both on the guided tour of the Capuchin crypt. National Geographic Magazine writes:
"No one knows exactly what started the mummification; probably by chance it was discovered that a body left in a crypt with a particular atmosphere of coolness and porous limestone would actually dry out rather than rot. Then a system was devised. The newly dead were laid in chambers, called strainers, on terra-cotta slats over drains, where their body fluids could seep away and the corpses slowly desiccate, like prosciutto. After eight months to a year, they'd be washed with vinegar, put back in their best clothes, and either placed in coffins or hung on the walls."
As I was writing this post, I was imagining the odor of the galleries. According to National Geographic, they are cool and dank and smell of sour, spiced dust and rotting...cloth.

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