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Locked in time... the 400-year-old Mummies (and one little girl)

Posted on 7:05 PM by Sameer Shah

With her crumpled yellow hairbow and grubby face, pretty little Rosalina looks as though she's just flaked out for a nap after a morning spent playing in the garden.

In fact, she has been lying in her tiny, wooden, glass-topped coffin in the catacombs beneath the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily, for more than 90 years - skilfully and shockingly preserved to look just as she did when she died of a bronchial infection in December 1920, aged two.

And she is not alone. In the vast, musty-smelling catacombs are nearly 2,000 mummified corpses, many of them more than four centuries old - Rosalina was one of the last to enter this strange underground resting place, before the authorities banned the process.



As these extraordinary photographs show, some are resting in open wooden boxes like Rosalina, others are arranged straight-backed on benches, while many hang from the walls in ghoulish rows - heads lolling and in various stages of decay.

Some have a nose or a stretch of cheek still in place, others have a clump of wispy hair. All are on display to the public.

The ghoulish display - featured in February's National Geographic Magazine - dates back to the 16th century, when the monks outgrew their cemetery, started excavating crypts beneath it and discovered that the combination of the coolness of the crypt and the porous limestone walls meant corpses dried out, rather than rotted.

The first and oldest corpse is brother Silvestro of Gubbio, who died in 1599 and, 410 years on, is still dressed in his flowing religious robes.

The embalming process was remarkably simple.

The newly dead were undressed and laid out on racks of ceramic pipes in special chambers where their bodily fluids gradually drained out and the remains became desiccated.

After seven or eight months, the fluids had drained out and the bodies were doused with vinegar, redressed and put in coffins, or hung on the wall - depending on their family's wishes.



The catacombs are divided into distinct areas. As well as the priests, one wall is devoted to women - an eerie sight with their disintegrating hooped skirts and ragged parasols - and a separate side chapel houses virgins.

A ' professional' section is home to professors, doctors, teachers, lawyers and soldiers - all dressed according to their trade.

Then there's the chapel for children, all dressed in their best party clothes.

In more recent times, an elaborate preservation system was adopted, using chemical injections.

Rosalina was one of these and so successful was her embalming that, until recently, locals believed she was a doll.

X-rays of her tiny body show her organs are astonishingly intact.

While it makes an horrific and ghoulish tourist attraction, the remains are incredibly informative for scientists, who can learn about diet, diseases and life-expectancy in past centuries.

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