The remains of plague victims from the days of ancient Rome have been closely studied in Egypt for the first time. They could help tell the story of more than two decades of horrifying deaths that occurred centuries in the past.

Francesco Tiradritti led a team of Italian researchers on a 15-year mission to explore an ancient body disposal operation. Searching outside the modern city of Luxor (ancient Thebes) the archeologists discovered bodies covered in lime. This highly-alkaline material was used in historic times as a disinfectant. The first evidence for the body-disposal system was unearthed in 1997.

Near the bodies were three kilns used to manufacture the lime, as well as the remains of a large bonfire. Bones were found where fire once raged, suggesting plague victims were incinerated in the flames.

A monument containing the crematory was built in the seventh century B.C.E., for Harwa, a grand steward. After that leader was buried there, Egyptians continued using the grounds to house the dead. With the Plague of Cyprian, the facility was used to process the dead, possibly on a massive basis. It was abandoned immediately after the disease ended.

The Cyprian plague may have been measles, or smallpox. The disease landed in Egypt in the third century of the common era. Throughout the Roman Empire, the disease ate away human population. Between C.E. 250 and 271, more than 5,000 people a day died from the illness in Rome alone, according to some sources.

Roman writers told stories of the suffering visited on the people by this terrible disease, which tore through the population. Saint Cyprian described the plague as signifying the end of the world. He was a bishop in Carthage, a city in Tunisia.

"It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270. [It is] a generally held opinion that the 'Plague of Cyprian' seriously weakened the Roman Empire, hastening its fall," Tiradritti told Live Science.

No religious artifacts were found at the site, nor was there evidence of funerary artifacts, suggesting the bodies were disposed with great haste.

"We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime. They had to dispose of them without losing any time," Tiradritti explained to the press.

Study of the remains and the surrounding facility could lead to new discoveries about the ancient plague. But, DNA is not likely to be extracted from the ancient artifacts. Genetic material is destroyed by hot, dry conditions like those in Egypt.

Investigation of the corpses and the effect of Cyprian plague on the Roman Empire was published in Egyptian Archaeology, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society.

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