Construction workers in Italy’s most famous cities are accustomed to digging up all sorts of artifacts, from ancient urns to medieval coins, when they attempt even the simplest building job—after all, most modern European cities are built on top of layers of antiquity. But when workers started to prepare for a new elevator for the famed Uffizi gallery in Florence late last year, they had no idea they would find a mass grave from 1,500 years ago.
In all, more than 60 full and partial skeletons have been found where the elevator shaft was to be dug and archeologists believe there could be hundreds, or even thousands, more. Many of the dead were stacked head to toe in mass graves, presumably to make space for as many bodies as possible in a giant crypt. The bodies were found with coins dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., giving archeologists—who have now sequestered the building site—vital clues before carbon dating can confirm the age of the old bones.
At first look, archeologists on the project say the remains are not consistent with war injuries or other violent deaths. There are no apparent bone markings from weapons or telltale signs of malnutrition, leading experts to believe they were most likely victims of an early plague or other scourge. The most famous plague, known as the Black Death, which killed 50 million Europeans—nearly 60 percent of the entire population—did not strike the region until the 14th century. The Uffizi bones could give vital clues to earlier pandemics on the peninsula. “It was certainly an extremely lethal epidemic,” says Andrea Pessina, the archeology superintendent for Tuscany.
Once catalogued and photographed in situ, the bones will be carefully excavated and removed and eventually buried elsewhere in Florence. The Italian archeologists are working with the German University of Mainz, which specializes in paleontology studies, to help pinpoint the exact cause of death and the geographic origin of the deceased. Based on soil samples around the skeletons, they were apparently all buried at the same time, which also backs up the theory that they were victims of a major epidemic. The entire procedure of excavation is being videotaped to create a 3-D exhibit that will be housed in the new museum space, in part to honor the nameless victims. Pessina hopes they can learn a lot from the bones to help explain how people lived—and died—almost two millennia ago. “We will conduct DNA and carbon-14 tests to determine the cause and time of death, as well as details about the diet, pathologies, and work-related stresses of the victims at the time they died,” he says.
Alessandra Marino, superintendent of Italy’s archeological sites, says that the position of the graveyard close to the Arno river might also give vital clues into the history of the dead where science leaves off. She wants to find out if they were carried by boat to this location, or if they were they buried along the outer edge of a much larger graveyard that could extend far below the city of Florence. The bones were found under the existing Uffizi library, which means that in 1560, when the palace that now houses the museum was built, the original builders may have ignored or been completely unaware of the dead bodies beneath them. “The location of the cemetery in an area prone to flooding so close to the Arno may indicate that there were few other choices to bury the dead,” Marino says. “And the position of the bodies, head to foot with the children placed between adult bodies, and some graves with as many as 10 people inside, is consistent with a need to bury the bodies quickly.” She also added that the location may mean the dead were buried in the summer months when the river was low and the sediment-rich soil was easier to work.
Forensic experts who will examine the bones to try to determine the exact cause of death, whether it was plague, cholera, dysentery or even influenza. And they will also use DNA testing to try to determine if the dead were from the area or transient migrants, as well as the demographic makeup in terms of age and gender. Experts also hope that the morbid discovery can fill in the gaps of Florentine history. “The site provides snapshot of a moment of great importance to the city,” according to the Italian culture ministry statement about the exceptional discovery.
“It was a catastrophe that we now know certainly contributed to a well-known long period of decline in the city when it nearly disappeared from history, and perhaps now this discovery alone will be enough to explain why.”