Italian archaeologists in Egypt have uncovered a kiln used to incinerate plague victims in what at the time was thought be “the end of the world.”

ancient kiln

The pottery remains were dated back to the third century A.D., a time when a series of epidemics now dubbed the “Plague of Cyprian” ravaged the Roman Empire, which included Egypt.

Deaths related to kilns

The kilns “killed more than 5,000 people a day in Rome alone,” wrote Francesco Tiradritti, director of the project, in the latest issue of Egyptian Archaeology, a publication from the Egypt Exploration Society.  In history the site developed a scared reputation. “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,” Tiradritti wrote in the publication.

At the time in Egypt and throughout what is now Israel and Palestine, religious believers were expecting a liberating king to be sent down from heaven and release them from what was considered an oppressive Roman rule.  The Plague of Cyparian appears to be a reaction to that belief.

The book “Ante-Nicene Fathers” (volume 5, 1885) puts the state of the world at the time in perspective. “The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world ” (translation by Philip Schaff).

The world did not end in the third century A.D., but the plague is credited with speeding the ultimate demise of the Roman Empire. “It killed two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270,” Tiradritti writes.

“We found evidence of corpses either burned or buried inside the lime,” Tiradritti said to Live Science in an interview. “They had to dispose of them without losing any time.”

The plague in question was likely a result of smallpox or measles, according to today’s scientists. The discovery of human remains from the plague will provide anthropologists an opportunity to study new material to study, they will not be able to extract DNA from the bodies. “In a climate like Egypt, the DNA is completely destroyed,” he said. DNA breaks down over time, and permafrost (something not found in Egypt) is the best place to find ancient DNA samples, Tiradritti said.