History In The Headlines

Ancient Plague Victims Found in Egypt

By Sarah Pruitt
Between roughly A.D. 250-271, a series of deadly epidemics swept through the Roman Empire (which at the time included Egypt), claiming as many as 5,000 lives a day in Rome alone. Saint Cyprian, a bishop of the Tunisian city of Carthage at the time, wrote extensively of the plague’s horrific effects on its victims, and claimed that the disease signaled the end of the world. Now, a team of Italian archaeologists has discovered the cremated remains of a number of victims of the “Plague of Cyprian” at a funerary complex in Luxor, Egypt, on the site of the ancient city of Thebes.
Remains of victims of the Plague of Cyprian, discovered in the funeral complex of Harwa and Akhimenru (Credit: N. Cijan/ Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dellEgitto e del Sudan ONLUS)

Remains of victims of the Plague of Cyprian, discovered in the funeral complex of Harwa and Akhimenru (Credit: N. Cijan/ Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dellEgitto e del Sudan ONLUS)

The funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru, located on the west bank of the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), is one of the largest private burial monuments in Egypt. Built in the seventh century B.C. for a grand steward named Harwa, it was used continuously for burial after his death, and a successor, Akhimenru, had his own tomb built there as well. After more than 15 years worth of research in the region, a team of scientists working for the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor (MAIL) has announced a major archaeological find: the remains of victims struck down by the ancient plague that St. Cyprian believed signaled the end of the world.

As reported by LiveScience, the human remains that archaeologists found at the site were covered with a thick layer of lime, used historically as a disinfectant. The MAIL researchers also found three kilns where the lime was produced, and more human remains scattered over an area that appears to have been a giant bonfire, in which many of the plague victims appear to have been incinerated. Pottery found inside the kilns allowed the scientists to date the site to the third century A.D., when the so-called “Plague of Cyprian” was ravaging Egypt and the rest of the Roman Empire.

In his Latin text entitled De Mortalitate (“On the Mortality”), the bishop St. Cyprian chronicled the horrific suffering of those afflicted by the plague in Carthage and elsewhere, which included incessant vomiting, bleeding from the eyes and limbs taken off due to contagion. He also claimed that the plague signaled the end of the world, stating that “The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world…” (This translation, by Philip Schaff, was included in volume five of the book “Ante-Nicene Fathers,” published in 1885.)

The plague, which modern-day scientists believe may have been a form of smallpox or measles, did take its toll on the Roman Empire. Some sources argue that it claimed more than 5,000 lives a day in Rome alone, and its victims included two emperors (Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270). Though the plague did not turn out to be a harbinger of the world’s end, many historians believed that it weakened the Roman Empire and hastened its fall.

The MAIL team found no evidence that the corpses at the Theban funerary complex had received any religious rites, indicating that those who buried them did so quickly in the hopes of curbing the plague’s spread. After its use during the plague, the burial monument appears to have been abandoned, and was never used again. MAIL director Francesco Tiradritti writes in Egyptian Archaeology, a magazine published by the Egypt Exploration Society, that the use of the site “for the disposal of infected corpses gave the monument a lasting bad reputation and doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the 19th century.”

Archaeologists’ findings in Thebes/Luxor since the mid-1990s have enabled scholars to determine how the ancient city changed from the seventh century B.C. to today. The site has been particularly important in aiding in their understanding of an innovative period in Egyptian art known as the Pharaonic Renaissance, which lasted from the early seventh to mid-sixth century B.C. Though the plague victims’ remains and the team’s other new findings will provide new material to study, Tiradritti warns that scientists will not be able to extract DNA from the ancient remains. The genetic material will certainly have broken down due to its advanced age, as well as the effects of Egypt’s hot climate.

Share
Categories: Ancient Egypt, Archaeology, Diseases