Italian archaeologists working in Egypt say they've uncovered evidence of an ancient plague, a lethal pandemic that ravaged the far-flung Roman Empire from A.D. 250 to 271.
In a burial pit in Luxor in Egypt, near the banks of the Nile, researchers say they've found remains thought those of victims of a plague, believed by many scientists to have been either smallpox or a form of measles, that was killing up to 5,000 people every day in Rome.
Many throughout the Roman Empire believed the plaque to be a sign of an approaching apocalypse, they said.
In the Luxor pit, researchers with the Italian Archaeological Mission to Luxor discovered remains that had been covered in lime in an attempt to disinfect people from the disease, along with three kilns used to produce the lime.
Evidence of a large bonfire suggests bodies of many victims had been burned, they said.
Known as the Plague of Cyprian after a bishop in Carthage at the time who wrote of its symptoms and spread, the pandemic would eventually kill a quarter of Rome's population and take countless lives in other areas of the Roman Empire, which included Egypt.
The findings were made at a site identified as the Funerary Complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the ancient city of Thebes, now part of modern-day Luxor.
Built around the seventh century B.C., the monument was used for centuries for normal burials, but after it was used to dispose of the bodies of plague victims it was abandoned, never to be used again.
Using it "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 early 19th century," research team leader Francesco Tiradritti wrote in the magazine Egyptian Archaeology.
The pandemic claimed the lives of two Roman emperors, and some historians believe it may have been a factor in the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.
"It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270," Tiradritti wrote. It is "a generally held opinion that the 'Plague of Cyprian' seriously weakened the Roman Empire, hastening its fall."
If the plague was indeed smallpox it would have been just one of many outbreaks throughout human history until the often-fatal disease was eliminated globally in 1979 as a result of a worldwide vaccination campaign.
The desperation involved in the Luxor disposal is suggested by the fact the Italian researchers found no signs that victims were given any kind of religious rites before they were burned.
"We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime," Tiradritti said. "They had to dispose of them without losing any time."