The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt

Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]

Military museums in Rome

The Italian army gets a bad rap.

Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.

The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.

And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.

Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.

%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:

Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.

Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.

Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.

Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.

Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.

There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!

Egyptian tomb discovery highlights overlooked archaeological wonder

Archaeologists from Cairo University have discovered the tomb of a royal scribe named Ptah Mes, who worked for the pharaohs Seti I and Ramses II from 1203-1186 BC.

The tomb was originally discovered in the nineteenth century by artifact hunters who took the best things and left. They forgot where the tomb was and the desert sands covered it over once again. Archaeologists have rediscovered it near the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, visible on the far left in this image courtesy of Hajor via Wikimedia Commons.

Saqqara is often missed by tour groups whizzing through Egypt. While sites such as the Pyramids at Giza are perhaps more impressive, Saqqara is just as important to Egyptian history. It was a religious and mortuary center from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, through the Middle and New Kingdoms, and continued to be used during Egypt’s decline in the Roman Period.

It has the first pyramid ever built in Egypt–the Step Pyramid of Djoser (in the center of the above photograph) constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC. There are even earlier tombs at the site called mastabas, which are low buildings that look like benches. “Mastaba” is the Arabic word for bench. A later addition around about 1390 BC was the Serapeum, a tomb for holy bulls. The wide underground corridors and giant sarcophagi are highly atmospheric. Saqqara is only 30 km south of Cairo and easily reached by taxi or minibus.

Excavations at the tomb are continuing. Several long hallways and chapels have already been cleared of sand. The team hopes to discover the main chamber and a mummy the original discoverers reported seeing but said they didn’t take.

The Global Arab Network has published some intriguing photos of the tomb.

Have you seen. . .The Thing?

As you drive through the desert along I-10 you see them–garish signs beckoning you to explore the mystery of “The Thing?” The signs are everywhere, 247 of them stretching from Arizona to Texas. The journey is long and boring, punctuated only by bad country music and Born-Again preachers on the radio. Finally you make it to Exit 322 at Dragoon, Arizona, and see the cheap yellow, red, and blue facade inviting you to stop and see The Thing? itself.

How could you say no? I couldn’t. A long, long time ago, a much younger Museum Junkie felt the siren call of roadside America and pulled over in his 82 Nissan Stanza to find out what The Thing? really was.

Past a curio shop stuffed with plastic tomahawks and The Thing? shot glasses, I entered a back lot with three sheds. The first two were stuffed with dusty displays of fascinating junk, everything from a mock-up of a torture room to a 1937 Rolls Royce supposedly owned by Hitler. There were strange carvings made of roots and driftwood too, and random bits that looked like they were saved from a dumpster behind an antique mall.

But then I spied the yellow trail of Bigfoot prints leading to the third shed. I followed them and beheld in all it’s glory–THE THING?!!!

So what is it? A crashed UFO? A fifty-foot Eiffel Tower made out of jelly beans? J. Edgar Hoover’s drag queen outfits? No! It’s. . .it’s. . .

. . .well, it’s this. A dusty female mummy holding a baby mummy and shyly hiding her geriatric genitalia behind a Chinese hat.

Is it real? This former archaeologist made a thorough examination of it (by staring through the dirty glass) and came up with the professional diagnosis of “maybe”. The face looks pretty fake, making me suspect its a paper mache dummy with a few spare ribs from somebody’s barbecue added for effect, but something made me think twice. Dessicated human remains are fairly common in the Arizona desert, and were even more common back in 1950 when the museum opened.

As an archaeology student at the University of Arizona back in the day, I got to tour the state forensics lab and saw several of these mummies. Some were ancient native Americans, others dated to modern times and were what the lab attendants referred to as JPFROG (Just Plain F**cking Ran Out Of Gas).

Another roadside attraction, The Million Dollar Museum in New Mexico, had several of these things, but sadly they have closed. According to unverified reports (what else would you expect?) the FBI was sufficiently convinced the mummies were real that they hauled them away for DNA testing.

Ancient mummy, cheesy fake, or JPFROG? You be the judge. Go to. . .The Thing?

Or be lazy and watch this YouTube video narrated by Hunter S. Thompson (not really).