A well preserved mummy which bears an impressive resemblance to Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait has been found in an ancient church in Spain.
The individual, whose real name is unknown, is one of 30 mummified bodies that were found during restoration work in the church of the Assumption of Our Lady in the village of Quinto, near Zaragoza. The burials were unearthed in 2011, when a part of the floor of the church, also known as the “Piquete,” was removed to install the heating system.
To the workers’ surprise, 30 mummified bodies, some in very good states of preservation, emerged from the partly opened wooden coffins. All mummified bodies –11 adults and 24 children — were then stored in a chapel of the church, and there they remained, wrapped in cloths, waiting for examination.
In 2014 a project was finally launched to study and restore the collection exhumed in the church and a lab was created at the site.
“The project is still ongoing. We have begun with five mummies, two adults and three children,” Mercedes González, director of the Instituto de Estudios Científicos en Momias in Madrid, told Discovery News.
Mummified naturally thanks to the very dry soil, the bodies date from the late 18th until mid-19th century, based on the clothing of the mummies. Some male mummies wore monk clothes. “In Spain it was very common for people to be buried with habits of a religious order. Some of these mummies wear Franciscan habits, but they are not monks,” González said.
Actual monks were buried barefoot. The mummies of Quinto wear espadrilles, a kind of shoe typical of the Aragon region. “They are made of straw and cotton and were used by peasants,” González said.
Most mummies still have hair and beards perfectly preserved. “Hair usually maintains very well in dry environments, especially if there are no insects such as Dermestidae, or skin beetles,” González said.
The “Van Gogh” mummy, who might have been in his 40’s when he died, is one of such clothed in Franciscan habits, but little is known about him, his diseases and cause of death. “We are waiting for the results of histological analysis that were sent to several international institutions in Italy, Korea, Nebraska and Brazil,” González said.
She noted that in the region of Aragon, to which Quinto belongs, there were several epidemics. In the 18th century, smallpox and yellow fever ravaged the region, while in the 19th century epidemics of cholera claimed many lives. According to Raffaella Bianucci, a bio-anthropologist in the Legal Medicine Section at the University of Turin, the mummies’ excellent state of preservation allows a minimally invasive, in-depth study of skeletal and soft tissue pathologies.
“Should it be confirmed that some of them died from cholera, an investigations should be carried out to identify historical cholera strains that might provide information on the microevolution of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae,” Bianucci said.
The large number of children found in the burials might hint to epidemics as the main cause of death. So far the children studied show an age between 6-9 months and 7 years old. CT scans carried out at the Royo Villanova Hospital in Zaragoza, revealed one of them has a possible pathology in his right foot.
“We are just studying it,” González said. She will detail the preliminary results at the World Congress on Mummy Studies which takes place in August in Lima, Peru. “By that time, we hope we can give a name to the ‘Van Gogh’ mummy and know more about his life,” González said.