A bonfire where many of the victims of an ancient epidemic in the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt were ultimately incinerated. Photo: N. Cijan / Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS.
It's like a plot straight out of the movies: archaeologists in Egypt have discovered the remains of an epidemic so terrifying that it was called the "end of the world" plague.
Between 250 to 271 AD, the Roman empire was afflicted by the Plague of Cyprian - named after the bishop of Carthage St. Cyprian, an early Christian writer who described the horror of the disease, which at its height killed 5,000 people a day in Rome:
This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces [mouth]; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction ...
Fast forward to today, when a team of archaeologists working at the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in modern-day Luxor (then Thebes), have uncovered bodies covered with a thick layer of lime (which the Romans used as disinfectant), kilsn where the lime was produced, as well as a giant bonfire where plague victims were incinerated.
A lime kiln built to produce enough lime disinfectant to cover the human remains of victims from the epidemic in the ancient city of Thebes. Photo: N. Cijan / Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS.
Francesco Tiradritti, director of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor, told LiveScience that his team found evidence of corpses burned or buried inside the lime without receiving any religious rites. "They had to dispose of them without losing any time."
Usually, these kinds of stories ended up with scientists attempting to extract plague DNA from the corpses (what could possibly go wrong with that?), but Tiradritti noted, "In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed."
Read more about the archeological findings over at LiveScience.