University of Huddersfield and University of Pisa team up to discover Peruvian mummy secrets

The mummified bodies of Peruvians who died up to 1,000 years ago will yield up their secrets, thanks to a prestigious research project by the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Stefano Vanin and two of his students in collaboration with the University of Pisa and the Ancient World Society. 

For PhD student Esta Bostock, from Brighouse, and forensic science undergraduate Pip Elrington, from Bolton, it has meant a trip to the famous Italian town of Pisa, where they have peeled away the layers of fabric surrounding ancient corpses (fardos) that have long been part of the collection of the Museum of Anatomy at the University of Pisa.  By analysing the insects that colonise dead bodies – from recent murder victims to ancient mummies – Dr Vanin can draw a wide range of conclusions about how, why and when the person died and the nature of their society and their traditions. 

In a fardo, the mummified body is laid in a foetal position and wrapped in layers of fabric that contain objects from the person’s life – such as shoes and metallic objects – and also fragments of food.  Dr Vanin and the two students have been collecting insect parasites present on the body before the death and carrion feeding insects that colonised the mummies.  Dr Vanin has been called on to research several mummified bodies and his latest project is perhaps the most challenging yet, he says.  In order to carry out this research a strong link has been forged between the University of Huddersfield and the University of Pisa to allow the team access to the Museum of Anatomy in Pisa, which has long been home to five fardos from pre-Columbian Peru and several other skeletons and artefacts. 

They were brought to Europe – as long ago as the 18th century – by a wealthy collector.  Between 600-1,000 years-old, they probably belonged to an ancient civilisation named the Moche that flourished in Peru in the first millennium AD.

Teeth sampling from the fardos is also planned in order to extract pathogen DNA.  Using techniques such as electron microscopy and DNA analysis at the University of Huddersfield, a large amount of information will be learned about the pathogens that affected the mummified bodies before death.  Then a picture of the health of the ancient civilisation and its life expectancy will begin to emerge.

Dr Vanin has recently been engaged in several other Italy-based research projects into mummified bodies and has a key role in the investigation of bodies found in church crypts in the towns of Monsampolo del Tronto and Roccapelago.

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