Mass Grave of Plague Victims Found

National Geographic Has an interesting story about the discovery of a large number of mass graves. The graves were found in Venice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchi and belong to several centuries worth of plague victims.

From National Geographic:

The island is believed to be the world’s first lazaret–a quarantine colony intended to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
The lazaret was opened during the plague outbreaks that decimated Venice, as well as much of Europe, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries A.D.

The article is one of the more fascinating pieces to hit National Geographic in quite awhile. The finds have some interesting things to say about how we treat the dead:

Researchers found the mass graves arranged in several layers. The oldest ones, dating back to the end of the 15th century, are long rectangular trenches. The skeletons inside are carefully lined and wrapped in sheets.
Later graves are nothing more than large holes where monatti, or corpse carriers, hastily unloaded their carts.
“Plague outbreaks in the 16th century were far deadlier than the earlier ones,” Gobbo said. “About 500 people a day used to die in Lazzaretto Vecchio. Monatti simply had no time to take care of the burials.”
The remains belong to men, women, and children alike. Some show Asian or African features, evidence of the cultural diversity that stemmed from the Republic of Venice’s role as one of the most important commercial ports in Europe.

And the living:

But conditions in Lazzaretto Vecchio during plague outbreaks were far from modern hospital’s standards.
“It looked like hell … The sick lay three or four in a bed,” wrote the 16th-century Venetian chronicler Rocco Benedetti.
“Workers collected the dead and threw them in the graves all day without a break. Often the dying ones and the ones too sick to move or talk were taken for dead and thrown on the piled corpses.”
The lucky ones who survived and recovered spent their convalescence on the near island of Lazzaretto Nuovo.

And how the present treats the past:

Researchers from across Italy will study the remains to learn more about society and everyday life in medieval and Renaissance Venice.
“By analyzing teeth and bones it may be possible to know what they used to eat and what kind of diseases affected them,” Gambaro, of the University of Padua, said.
“Then part of the remains will be put on display in the new museum on Lazzaretto Vecchio,” archaeologist Gobbo added. “The archaeological area will be open to visitors too.”

Archaeologists expect that more will be found:

“In the last three years we collected more than 1,500 corpses and 150 boxes of artifacts,” he added. “We estimate there are still thousands of skeletons buried beneath every meadow in Lazzaretto Vecchi.”

Fascinating stuff. I can’t wait to see the studies coming out of this…


4 Responses

  1. Wow, I’m going to be in Venice in a couple of weeks. I wonder if any of this is open to view….

  2. Lazzaretto–hence our word “lazaret”.

  3. Also, the origin of lazzaretto in Italian is interesting (to us etymology freaks) :
    Italian lazzaretto : blend of lazzaro, lazar (from Late Latin Lazarus, Lazarus; see lazar) and dialectal Nazareto, popular name for a hospital maintained in Venice by the Church of Santa Maria di Nazaret.

  4. It sounds like a fascinating site. I too will be interested to see what data emerges later on.

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