An Italian team of researchers uncovered ancient skeletons, victims of the epidemic known as the “Plague of Cyprian,” in Luxor, Egypt. The archaeologists could date the corpses and the site to the 3rd century AD, a time when the ancient epidemic was ravaging the Roman Empire, killing 5000 people a day in the city of Rome alone.
The bodies were caked in lime, a common disinfectant of the ancient world. The researchers also found a huge bonfire where the dead were burned.
The discovery was at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru; a monument originally built for an Egyptian grand steward known as Harwa in the 7th century B.C. After the steward had passed, the monument was used for burials. When the plaque struck, the area became cursed in eyes of locals because of the many victims of the ancient epidemic.
As a result, the tomb remained intact until 19th century grave robbers found it. The area has been under official excavation since 1997.
The discovery gives us a glimpse at one of the most horrific epidemics in human history.
Vomiting, bleeding eyes and amputated limbs were common components of the epidemic. Saint Cyprian, Bishop of ancient Carthage, thought the plague was a sign of the end of the world.
According to accounts of the time, in regions of the Roman Empire, like Egypt and Carthage, the ancient epidemic brought society to the brink of anarchy.
Cyprian’s biographer wrote, “There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves.
No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event.
No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.”
Some researchers believe the epidemic plague was a factor in the fall of the Roman Empire.
The disease, which is now extinct, is believed to be some form of smallpox.
Unfortunately for researchers, these bodies were discovered in Egypt, where the desert conditions will not allow for DNA samples.
“In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed,” explained research team leader Francesco Tiradritti. The best places to find DNA samples are areas with permafrost, something pretty rare in Egypt.
The team’s research on the ancient epidemic in Egypt can be found in the journal of Egyptian Archaeology.
(Image: Plague In Rome, by Jules-Élie Delaunay)