Show Us Those Incredible Displays Of Bones

Across the globe there are magnificent, yet macabre, displays of bones. These range from the tombs of ancient kings and leaders, to the catacombs that snake their way beneath the streets of Paris. They can be awe-inspiring and stomach-turning all at once.


(Image: Jan Kameníček/Public Domain)

In Évora, Portugal, you can find the Chapel of Bones, a 16th-century church where every wall and pillar is covered with skeletal remains. Deep in the heart of Czechia is the Sedlec Ossuary, commonly known as the “Bone Church,” where a chandelier comprised of human bones hangs over visitors as they venture through the church. And it’s not just human remains that get all the attention. At the Basilica of Santa Maria e San Donato in Venice, Italy, massive rib bones hang from one wall, purported to have belonged to a dragon slain by Saint Donatus. These are just a few of the places around the world where morbidly fascinating displays of bones take center stage, but we want to discover more!

Catacombs, tombs, churches, museums. In the thread below, tell us about some of your favorite places where bones are on display (although let’s leave the dinosaurs out of this one). Where is it located, and what’s the history behind the display? Be sure to include any pictures you might have as well, and drop in your Instagram handle. Your response and photo may be included in an upcoming round-up article on Atlas Obscura. Tis the season, so let’s see those places with incredible displays of bones!

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Cimitero delle Fontanelle, Naples, Italy.



Bones were removed from neighborhood churches and put into this cave to make room in the churches for new burials. Then there was an outbreak of plague in the 1600s, and those bodies were interred here as well. There was also a cholera epidemic in the 1800s that contributed more bodies. As with at least one other site in Naples, a cult of devotion sprang up for a while, which is why some of the skulls are in little cases.

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And at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, Germany, I had the unique experience of seeing my name spelled out in human bones.

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I was just talking about this yesterday. Last year we did the Paris catacombs. To be honest I wish I didn’t. It wasn’t the bones it was the other tourists taking happy selfies in front of what used to be people. It just seemed disrespectful.

We went to the necropolis under the Vatican. It is a fairly new private tour. Our guide had her doctorate and worked full time at the Vatican. The atmosphere was quite different. Everyone was solemn and interested. This area was unearthed when they were building a parking garage. Awesome find. There were many artifacts to see as well.

I love visiting cemeteries and such but always try to stay respectful. So unless you just HAVE to go to the Paris catacombs, I would skip it. If you do want to go there, by all means buy your tickets ahead of time. There is a regular 3-4 hours wait if you walk up. Skip it and go to Pere Lachaise cemetery instead. We lived that place. When I asked my husband to bury me there in a wonderful ornate crypt, his answer was he would stash my ashes in one, funny man.

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Wow thats incredible thanks for sharing :beers:

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this is amazing!!

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Spelunking in Belize, deep in a cave. I was rather surprised more wasn’t done to protect these bones; they were right there with direct access (providing you want to swim through water and climb through dark caves with just a flashlight on your helmet!). Then, a different skeleton in the cafe/bar at the end of the excursion.

62belize

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During my nearly 3 months in the Summer of 1972 in Peru, I was extremely privileged and lucky to have visited the catacombs beneath the cathedral in the main square of Lima, which have long been closed to visitors. At the time, photography was strictly forbidden, so I have no photos to share. They’re possibly available on Wikipedia or with an image search. The Presidential Palace is on the same square and has a beautiful exterior. Google both for an understanding of Spanish colonial architecture and more.

Underground, beneath the floor of the ground level of the cathedral, the walls and ceilings are decorated with skulls and bones arranged in a dizzying array of patterns. There are enclosures full of skulls and bones, too, centuries worth of them. Room after room of this macabre decor! I realize that it’s not decor, it was an acceptable and respectful way to honor the dead. However, I don’t know what entitled one to be “laid to rest” there.

There are so many of them that they cannot all be the skeletons of officials and priests; the common people must have been included, too. Other than the Spanish and the diseases they brought with them, I know of no big die-off of Peruvians, unless it was through epidemics of influenza and other fatal diseases.

Upstairs on the main floor of the cathedral was also the mummified body of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror and scourge of the highly advanced Inca civilization, in a glass case. While the descendants of the Natives living in Peru probably didn’t appreciate having him so enshrined, the Catholic majority there is basically unstoppable. However, “Pizarro Under Glass” (as I and the other somewhat disrespectful American teenagers called him) was removed from public view some years ago and, for all I know, may have become a resident of the catacombs.

Having spent most of my life accompanying my mother to many cemeteries either for genealogy research or just checking out the very old ones in New England and near home, I have a healthy interest in and great respect for the resting places of those who have left this mortal Earth before us. When I visit a cemetery, I enjoy the peace and tranquility of those places. Even my mother and I revert to whispered voices so that the inhabitants may speak to us if they so desire. (Yes, I see and hear dead people.)

My personal interest is in gravestone carvings and the meanings of various motifs and epitaphs. For example, New England has the most amazing stones, which appear to be carved out of slate, that contain beautiful images of death’s heads and cherubs. Some are pretty grim, with oversized sets of teeth and foreboding expressions. Others are more loving and kind, especially those of women and children, if they are fortunate enough to have an expensive carved stone of their own.

We even have one cemetery here in Lancaster County in which many stones are similar in material and style to the dark grey ones in New England. It’s called “Peach Bottom Slate” and is pretty rare in graveyards here.

These places are not scary to me at all. They are restful havens where the dead and living come together in love, grief and yearning. Where I live in Lancaster County, PA, USA there are so many historical and endangered cemeteries that an organization, Grave Concern, exists for the purposes ofe of education, learning, clean-up and preservation of historical graveyards.

One of the members owned and operated a tile, stone and marble company for decades and is able to do repairs, but it’s a difficult and time-consuming process.

Many farms have family cemeteries on them but are no longer in the hands of that family and don’t care about the graves of others. One such farmer removed e every single gravestone in the family cemetery on his land and had begun to remove the stone walls around it when Grave Concern stepped in and had him served with an order to stop. The case went to court and an agreement was reached that allowed him to keep the stone wall along the road and put a plaque on it explaining the graveyard, as well as several of the old gravestones, the most interesting ones. He surrendered the remaining gravestones to our organization for safekeeping.

Lancaster County was inhabited for thousands of years by pre-“Indian” cultures and for hundreds of thousands of years by the modern Native Americans, including the Susquehannocks, Conostoagans and other tribes. Their burials were excavated years ago by archeologists and a few went to museums. Most of those have been returned to local tribes. Others were put back into place. My little village has a number of these backyard burials and the owners keep them very secret and secure.

The last of the Susquehannock adults were murdered in a basement cell beneath the Fulton Opera House I downtown Lancaster. They had been kidnapped and jailed by the Paxtang (or Paxton) Boys, who then killed them.(Google will help you to get the whole fascinating true story.) Some descendants of those tribes have survived to this day and are working on educating the general public through news articles, traveling displays and pow-wows.

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The tzompantlis were racks in which human skulls were displayed (usually of people sacrificed ritually). The word comes from Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but they were common to other indigenous civilizations of the Americas, and carved stone representations of them can be found in Mayan Chichén Itzá and the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).


Part of Tenochtitlán’s Huey Tzompantli, with the original skulls in place, was uncovered in 2015. In addition to the skull rack, there was also a skull column, a cylinder of stucco with skulls embedded throughout.

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I love visiting crypts and ossuaries, but pretty much my only source of information about where to find them is Atlas Obscura, so I don’t have any new places to recommend. Still, I hope you might like some of my photos :wink: My instagram account is Ale Jan (@ginger__cinnamon) • Instagram photos and videos

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Fontanelle Cemetery Caves in Naples, Italy

Chapel of Bones in Évora, Portugal

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San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy


Chapel of Bones in Faro, Portugal

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These are incredible thanks for sharing, why are the coins placed on the skulls ???

I was in Cambodia this year and this is a memorial at one of the Killing Fields there.
15%20AM 45%20AM

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In this cave full of bones from unnamed and forgotten people, a cult of the dead developed among Neapolitans, who would choose and “adopt” skulls to take care of. So people used to bring flowers and trinkets to the skulls, probably hoping to get favours in return from the poor unfortunate souls. I guess the coins are among the gifts brought to the skulls as part of the cult.

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Thanks! thats fascinating, will certainly have to do some more reading on that. Thanks again for the insight :beers:

A mass grave was discovered in Cologne, Germany, in the Middle Ages. “Let’s use the bones to decorate the church walls, and tell everyone they belong to 11,000 virgins who were murdered while on a pilgrimage with Saint Ursula.”
So the Basilica of Saint Ursula was built, with the bones decorating the walls of the Golden Chamber. Today the number 11 is still the favourite number of Cologne, with the Carnival season starting at 11:11 on November 11 (11.11) every year.

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I posted about Sedlec, but it was removed?

The famous Sedlec Ossuary, in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. We had the amazing opportunity to photograph this landmark from top to bottom. Yet it wasn’t enough. So we’re going back to finish our book!

Public Service Announcement: Photography will not be allowed in the ossuary as of January, 2020, due to people taking selfies and generally being disrespectful to this religious and historical place.

All our photos were taken with permission from the Sedlec Ossuary Director, and the Roman Catholic Parish of Kutna Hora, and they are offering their generous assistance with a book we are creating for the 150th Anniversary of the Sedlec Ossuary!


Instagram: @sedlec.ossuary

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