A centuries-old burial pit packed with the bodies of probable plague victims has been discovered by chance near the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
Workers who were digging the foundations for a new lift for an annex to the world-famous art galleries stumbled on the ancient cemetery, which contains at least 60 skeletons and dates to the fourth or fifth century AD.
The haphazard way in which the skeletons were found has led archaeologists to believe that they were probably buried in haste, possibly during a plague epidemic.
“They were all buried during the same period, so it was probably an epidemic that killed them,” said Andrea Pessina, the head of archaeology for the regional government of Tuscany.
Experts will conduct DNA and carbon-14 tests on the well-preserved skeletons to determine the cause and time of death, he said.
The skeletons showed no signs of physical injury or malnutrition.
“The remains bear no evidence of trauma,” said Mr Pessina, further supporting the theory that the people were killed by an epidemic.
The burial pit was found purely by chance. “We had to do some work to build the foundations of the new lifts for the museum and we came across this discovery,” said Alessandra Marino, an official in charge of the project.
Archaeologists believe there may well be more skeletons to discover, as they continue their excavations.
Epidemics such as the bubonic plague killed millions of people when they periodically swept across Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.
The best known epidemic, the Black Death of the 14th century, is estimated to have killed around 50 million people, or 60 per cent of Europe’s population.
Italy was badly hit by the disease, with one chronicler in Siena recalling bodies being buried in circumstances similar to those of the newly-discovered burial pit in Florence.
“In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city,” wrote the chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, whose five children were killed by the epidemic.
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