egyptian plague burial site
June 18, 2014

Archaeologists Uncover Remains Of Ancient Egyptian Plague Victims

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A team of Italian archaeologists has uncovered the remains of ancient plague victims at an ancient burial plot in what is now Luxor, Egypt, according to research appearing in the latest edition of the Egypt Exploration Society journal Egyptian Archaeology.

Between 250 AD and 271 AD, as many as 5,000 people died each day as a result of the disease, explained Owen Jarus in an article published by LiveScience. The epidemic became known as the Plague of Cyprian, and it so impacted the Roman Empire that one ancient writer believed it would lead to the end of the world.

Now, researchers working with the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the ancient city of Thebes discovered remains that had been coated with a thick layer of lime – a substance typically used as a disinfectant, according to Jarus. They also located three kilns that had stored the lime, and a giant bonfire containing the bodies of plague victims that had been burned to halt the spread of the disease.

Lead investigator Francesco Tiradritti of the Università di Enna Unikore and his colleagues worked at the Funerary Complex from 1997 until 2012, said the Daily Mail’s Jonathan O'Callaghan. The monument located there had been constructed in honor of the Egyptian grand steward Harwa in the seventh-century BC, and was used regularly until becoming a burial site in the third-century AD.

According to O'Callaghan, Tiradritti and his co-authors wrote that using the tomb to dispose of infected corpses gave it “a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century.” The Plague of Cyprian claimed approximately 25 percent of those living in the Roman Empire, which included Egypt at the time, and is now believed to have been caused by smallpox.

Saint Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage, wrote that he believed the plague signified the end of the world, and according to Jarus, he also left a detailed description of the agony suffered by those that contracted it.

“The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth),” he wrote in a Latin text known as “De mortalitate.” Cyprian added that the intestines “are shaken with a continual vomiting, the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” and that in some instances, “the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.”

In the midst of the outbreak, O'Callaghan explained, it was believed that people would willingly turn over friends and family members to the authorities in the hopes that they would be able to avoid catching the disease themselves. Carcasses were strewn throughout the streets, and in the year 270, the Plague of Cyprian was responsible for the death of emperor Claudius II Gothicus and, according to some experts, the fall of the Roman Empire itself.

“The discovery of the body disposal site is just one part of the team's research,” Jarus noted. “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.”