The Health, Development and Social Identity of Children Afforded Mummification in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily

About this project

Mummification has been practiced in Sicily since the Middle Ages and has attracted much attention from researchers. However, previous studies have principally focused on adult mummies, whilst mummies belonging to children have largely been overlooked. This is problematic as juveniles have much to tell us about societal values, identity, and roles and responsibilities within society. This research will start to rectify this imbalance by examining forty-one children afforded mummification in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo (Sicily). The aim of this research is to better understand the health, development, and social identity of children afforded this mortuary rite in late modern (A.D. 1787-1880) Palermo. A portable digital direct x-ray machine will be used to facilitate age and/or sex estimation of the children, and to identify pathological lesions, stress indicators, and developmental defects, which is not possible without non-invasive imaging. The results obtained from radiological analyses will be compared with the children’s outfits, associated funerary artefacts, mummification type, and surviving documentation. It is hoped this unique research project will shed new light on the children that inhabited late modern Palermo, and the way in which they were perceived and treated by adults in life and death.

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, located in northern Sicily, has a rich history and dates from the late sixteenth to early twentieth century. This site contains the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe, with at least 1,284 mummified and partially skeletonised bodies. These Catacombs provide an unparalleled snapshot into the people that inhabited Palermo in the past. Previous research on the site has primarily focused on adults, while the children have largely been overlooked. The proposed research project will redress the balance and will be the first to exclusively examine children afforded the mummification rite in late modern (A.D. 1787-1880) Palermo. There are at least 163 children’s bodies housed in the Catacombs, including 41 children located in a designated room for children. Very little is known about these individuals. Death records from the period are available, though these documents contain limited information, i.e., name of the deceased and date of death.

The aim of this project is to gain an insight into the health, development, and social identity of children afforded mummification in late modern Palermo. This project will involve the examination of all forty-one children housed in the Children’s Room of the Catacombs using a portable digital direct x-ray machine. Radiographs will be used to generate a biological profile of the mummified children to establish whether this mortuary rite was reserved for specific children based on their age and/or sex. They will also be utilised to detect the presence of developmental defects, stress indicators and pathological lesions, which aims to gain an insight into the health and lifestyle of children in life. These findings will be compared with the deceased’s placement within the Children’s Room, their funerary attire and associated funerary artefacts (e.g. chairs and canes), mummification type (e.g. natural or artificial), alongside any surviving historical documentation. This will reveal a unique insight into the children that were afforded mummification in late modern Palermo. The biocultural approach adopted in this research will highlight who these children were, why they were granted mummification, their identities, and how the living perceived and treated these children in life and death.

You can find more details about the project and its activities at the project website.

Solving the mysteries of Palermo's child mummies press release


Squires, K. and Piombino-Mascali, D. 2021. Ethical Considerations Associated with the Display and Analysis of Juvenile Mummies from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily. BioantTalks: AnthroEthics in the 21st Century. 5th July. Virtual Conference. Available at:

Lead researcher

Dr Kirsty Squires

Associate Professor

Kirsty is an Associate Professor of Bioarchaeology and primarily teaches in the areas of human osteology and statistical methods. Her research focuses on the analysis of cremated human bone from archaeological and forensic contexts

Kirsty's profile

Collaborating institutions

Reveal Imaging

Sicily Mummy Project

Superintendence for the Cultural and Environmental Heritage of Palermo

Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity

Project team

Dr Dario Piombino Mascali (Co-I) (Vilnius University)

Dr Robert Loynes (University of Manchester)

Dr Mark Viner (Cranfield Forensic Institute; Reveal Imaging)

Mr Wayne Hoban (Reveal Imaging)

Mr Eduardo Hernandez (Freelance Artist)

Funding body

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Grant Ref: AH/V014331/1)

in the UK for Quality Education

Sustainable Development Goal 4, Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2023

for Career Prospects

Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2023

for Facilities

Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2023

for Social Inclusion

The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023

of Research Impact is ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Very Considerable’

Research Excellence Framework 2021

of Research is “Internationally Excellent” or “World Leading”

Research Excellence Framework 2021

Four Star Rating

QS Star Ratings 2021