for National Geographic News
Ancient mass graves containing more than 1,500 victims of the bubonic plague have been discovered on a small island in Italy's Venetian Lagoon.
(See photos of the mass graves.)
Workers came across the skeletons while digging the foundation for a new museum on Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small island in the lagoon's south, located a couple of miles from Venice's famed Piazza San Marco (see an aerial picture of the Venetian Lagoon).
The island is believed to be the world's first lazaret—a quarantine colony intended to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
The lazaret was opened during the plague outbreaks that decimated Venice, as well as much of Europe, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries A.D.
Its presence may have helped Venice recover more quickly during the devastating outbreaks.
(Related: "Bubonic Plague Traced to Ancient Egypt" [March 10, 2004].)
"When plague struck the town, everybody sick or showing any suspect symptom were restricted on the island until they recovered or died," said Luisa Gambaro, an anthropologist of the University of Padua.
Digging the foundation for Venice's archaeological museum on the eastern side of the island, workers came across the well-preserved human skeletons three years ago.
"We were called to attend the excavations, study the site, and rescue remains and artifacts," said Vincenzo Gobbo, an archaeologist of the University Ca' Foscari of Venice working with the Archaeological Superintendence of Veneto.
"In the last three years we collected more than 1,500 corpses and 150 boxes of artifacts," he added. "We estimate there are still thousands of skeletons buried beneath every meadow in Lazzaretto Vecchi."
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