BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — One wears a prim white bonnet. Another sticks out its tongue, hands resting over abdomen. A third clutches at its chest, mouth seemingly frozen in a scream. They are faces from the past, trapped in the appearance they bore when laid to rest nearly 300 years ago.
And disturbed from their eternal sleep, these mummies may help unlock the secrets of the immune system.
Resting in cardboard boxes in long rows of cabinets on the top floor of the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, the 265 mummies are helping scientists find new ways to treat tuberculosis.
Buried between 1731 and 1838 in the crypt of a Dominican church in the northern Hungarian town of Vac, the naturally-preserved mummies were forgotten for decades and discovered in 1994 during the church's renovation. They had lain in gracefully-painted pinewood coffins, some decorated with pictures of skulls.
The mummification process happened thanks to the favorable microclimate inside the crypt, including low temperatures and relatively constant humidity and air pressure. Wood chips placed under the bodies in the coffins absorbed fluids, so instead of decomposing, the bodies gradually dried out – preserving them in an astonishingly lifelike state.
Reflecting a wide sample of Vac residents, the mummies include three nuns, 30 priests, the wife and child of the local postmaster, surgeons, the founder of the Vac hospital and first director of the town's school for the deaf. "What was probably the most exciting and most comprehensive study was the one about tuberculosis," said Ildiko Pap, head of the Department of Anthropology of the Hungarian Natural History Museum. "In some of the individuals, the traces of the mutations on the bones caused by tuberculosis are evident to the naked eye."