Saint Cyprian described it in the third century AD as a plague that signaled the end of the world—and archaeologists have now uncovered its remnants in Egypt. An Italian team has published the results of its 15 years of research in ancient Thebes (today, Luxor), where a funerary complex was found to hold bodies found thickly covered in lime—once used as a disinfectant. (See photos here.) The researchers also found kilns used to produce the lime and a huge bonfire where infected bodies were incinerated, LiveScience reports. The complex's "bad reputation ... doomed it to centuries of oblivion until tomb robbers entered the complex in the early 19th century," writes lead researcher Francesco Tiradritti.
The so-called "Plague of Cyprian" devastated Egypt and other parts of the Roman Empire from about AD 250-271 and likely quickened the empire's fall; between it and a plague a century before, "about half the population [of Rome] died," a historian tells the University of Chicago Press. Among the dead: two emperors, Hostilian in AD 251 and Claudius II Gothicus 19 years later. Saint Cyprian, then a bishop in Tunisia, described the plague's brutal effects: bowel "discharge," incessant vomiting, bloody eyes, and "in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion." Scientists speculate it may have been measles or smallpox, but Tiradritti explains that the weather conditions over the ensuing centuries would have "completely destroyed" the remains' DNA. (On the other end of the spectrum, archaeologists have whipped up the "Elixir of Long Life.")