Dozens of skeletons might lie beneath the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, according to archaeologists who have dug up a medieval mass grave near the renowned museum.

Exposed during work to build an elevator in an area designed to house an expanded section of the Uffizi’s exhibit space, the skeletons belong to more than 60 individuals of various ages and genders who probably succumbed to a devastating epidemic.

“It appears they all died at the same time. Multiple graves contain up to 10 bodies, certainly buried in a hurry. Within the graves we also found some coins, all dating between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century A.D.,” Carlotta Cianferoni, director of Florence’s National Archaeological Museum, told Discovery News.

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“The coins provide a rather accurate temporal reference, but of course we need to wait the results of the anthropological analysis and radiocarbon dating,” Cianferoni said.

According to the archaeologists, who have worked at the site for the past five months, the position and the way the bodies were laid in the graves indicate an emergency situation.

“The burials were made in a hurry and with the clear purpose of using less possible space. Bodies were laid side by side in opposite directions, feet against heads, while small, empty spaces were fitted with the bodies of children,” Cianferoni said.

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The well-preserved skeletons were found near Piazza del Grano, a few feet away from the gallery and the Arno river, in an area which was probably subjected to floods in antiquity.

“We have unearthed just a small part of the necropolis. We cannot rule out the cemetery extended up to where the Uffizi Gallery now stands,” Cianferoni said.

Since the skeletons lack of signs of wounds or malnutrition, the archaeologists believe the cause of death was a “lethal epidemic,” such as the plague, cholera, dysentery or the flu.

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“DNA testing should provide the definitive answer. These skeletons could shed light on a rather obscure period in the history of Florence,” Cianferoni said.

Image: Skeletons dug up near the Uffizi Gallery. Credit: Polo Museale Fiorentino.