(CNN) — A team of scientists is trying to find out why dozens of children were mummified and buried in catacombs at a convent on the Italian island of Sicily.
The first comprehensive study of the child mummies will be led by Kirsty Squires, associate professor of bioarchaeology at Staffordshire University in the UK, and fieldwork is due to begin next week.
At the Capuchin Catacombs, a macabre tourist attraction in Palermo, northern Sicily, the researchers will analyze the remains of 41 children buried in a designated room for children — although there are a total of 163 children buried in the catacombs.
“We want to try and understand the lives of these individuals, their health, development, and so on,” Squires told CNN Thursday. “And from that, we also want to compare the biological data with the more cultural side of things.”
Squires added that the mummies were fully clothed, with some placed in cradles and chairs while others were stood upright with sticks used to hold them in position — and the researchers will examine the significance of why these artifacts were used.
The fully-clothed remains of a child at the Capuchin Catacombs pictured in January 2011.
Little is known about these children, who were buried from 1787-1880 and are part of the largest collection of mummified remains in Europe, comprising at least 1,284 bodies.
“We know that they would have come from middle class families — the mummification rite was reserved for wealthier individuals like nobility, the middle class and the clergy,” Squires said.
“So we know that they weren’t the poorest members of society, but that’s all we know, really.” Squires added: “Why weren’t they just buried like other individuals?”
The team is using X-ray imaging because it is a non-invasive method that doesn’t throw up the same ethical considerations as invasive investigations on human remains, according to a Staffordshire University press release.
“We are using a portable X-ray machine to take radiographs so that we can estimate the age of individuals based on their dental eruption and development, and fusion of the bones,” Squires said, adding that she would be looking for signs of disease.
The researchers will use the radiographs — 574 in total, or 14 per mummy — to fill in a biological profile of the children and work out whether mummification was only performed on those of a certain age or sex.
“They will also be utilised to detect the presence of developmental defects, stress indicators and pathological lesions, which aims to gain an insight into the health and lifestyle of children in life,” according to the project website.
According to Squires, mummification was practiced in the catacombs from around 1599 to the early 20th century, viewed by the middle class as a “way of keeping their social persona alive after death,” with families visiting their buried relatives’ bodies.
Squires and her co-investigator Dario Piombino-Mascali of Vilnius University, in Lithuania, will be accompanied by two radiographers and an artist in the catacombs and will spend a week looking at death records. It will be months before findings are published, she said.