Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali is a bioarchaelogist, anthropologist, and senior researcher in biological anthropology at Vilnius University. He is also a lecturer in paleoanthropology and forensic anthropology at the University of Messina, curator of different collections of human remains, honorary inspector for the cultural heritage of Sicily, director of the “Sicily Mummy Project, explorer and storyteller – the list is endless.
But first and foremost, Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali is a bioarchaeologist who specializes in the study of ancient mummies and paleopathology. He focuses on the scientific study of relics and incorruptibles, as well as on the curation of historical anatomical collections. Dr. Piombino-Mascali was educated at the Universities of Leicester and Pisa, where he was awarded a PhD in paleoanthropology and pathocoenosis. Dr. Piombino-Mascali has worked extensively on the investigation of preserved remains, including the mummies found in some Lithuanian crypts, the Egyptian mummies scattered in various museums across Europe, and the so-called Fire mummies of the Philippines.
Dr. Piombino-Mascali was a lecturer at many universities, including Edinburgh, Cranfield, and Vilnius, and head of the first Mummy Studies Field School, which is organized every summer in Sicily together with American researchers. He is a frequent guest on TV programs and documentaries, and his research has been featured in the international media. He is also the current scientific curator of the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.
We sat down to talk with Dario Piombino-Mascali at the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Anthropology at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University.
What is your professional experience? What was your career like?
I am Italian and was born in Messina, Sicily, a city that was founded by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC. I studied anthropology and then completed my doctoral studies in paleoanthropology and pathocoenosis at the University of Pisa, after which I joined the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, northern Italy, where I had the chance to study the famous Iceman. I also focused on other mummies, including the bodies in the catacombs of Sicily, some members of the Medici family of Florence, the bog bodies of the Netherlands, and the mysterious Fire mummies of Kabayan.
Why did you choose Vilnius, Lithuania?
I recently joined, on a permanent basis, the Faculty of Medicine as a senior researcher in anthropology, but I actually worked here as a visiting scientist before, for five years. I chose to move to this country for scientific reasons due to the presence of many mummified remains from both Lithuania and Egypt that I am studying together with my local colleagues. I very much liked the time I spent in the Department of Anatomy, as well as the research activities. So I thought it would be a nice place to settle down.
Can you remember the moment you came to Vilnius for the first time?
I first came to Vilnius in early 2011, when I got the chance to inspect the bodies kept in the crypt of the Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit. I perfectly remember my arrival at the airport, and fell in love with the historic town of Vilnius and its beautiful architecture. It was very cold, but sunny! I immediately felt that this city has a lot of positive energy, and I am certainly proud to be associated with it today.
What research are you doing at Vilnius University?
Most of my work is related to research in the fields of biological anthropology and bioarchaeology, so I am continuing investigations on collections from both Italy and Lithuania and from other countries such as Estonia and Ukraine. However, soon I will also start teaching a course in forensic anthropology, focusing on reconstructing the identity of people by inspecting their bones or their mummified tissue. The purpose of these studies is to allow positive identification of individuals from the ancient and more recent past and interpret their lives by reading their remains.
How long are you planning to work at Vilnius University?
I am staying for the next 5 years for sure, and then, based on the research results, I will see whether I deserve the chance to continue. I truly hope this will be the case. Currently we are finalizing work on ancient DNA, and we will soon initiate a brand new project on one of the most important families of Lithuania. We are also going to investigate a number of Egyptian mummies curated in northern and eastern Europe and sometimes work for the Church to restore Catholic relics.
We have many ongoing activities, and of course, these are very much connected to Lithuania and Vilnius. I spend much of the academic year in this city, and I love the job and the atmosphere. We are also planning cooperation with other universities, like Catania and Cranfield and will be hosting the next paleopathology European meeting in 2020, so everything seems very exciting.
What is your opinion about Vilnius University? What is your relationship with your Lithuanian colleagues like, for example with Rimantas Jankauskas?
Vilnius University is a very prominent institution and the faculty itself offers a unique scenario. The building has great architectural value and the collections of human remains are very valuable for both research and education. I also like the office and get along with my colleagues – I can tell that we will enjoy very fruitful cooperation. Also, we are very lucky to have Professor Jankauskas as a leader. He is a generous man, a real friend, and a respected scientist; he advices and guides us whenever he can.
What do you think about the importance of medical research? What people inspire you?
Medical research is of utmost importance, and I am happy to be surrounded by scientists who feel the vocation to help others. This is something beautiful, and I feel relieved to know that many of the people in the faculty work hard to fight diseases and give patients a chance to overcome difficult times and live on.
What are the personality traits of a great researcher, in your opinion?
My previous mentor, Professor Arthur Aufderheide, the “mummy doctor” who established the science and discipline of modern mummy studies, was always a huge inspiration for me. He was an example to follow and I will always treasure his legacy. A great researcher should not only focus on his personal career but also should assist and support others, younger scholars, in order for them to become great, too.
It would also be interesting to know more about your life in Lithuania and Vilnius in general. What are your impressions? What places have you visited?
I am still in the process of settling down, as I will not have to move back and forth from Italy anymore, so I am rearranging my life based on this new status, but I am quite happy here. I am very interested in art history, being a licensed tourist guide myself, so I like to go to museums and galleries and discover the wonderful works Lithuanian artists make. This is why I find Užupis particularly fascinating, but I also like many other places in the country: Kaunas, with its evocative Čiurlionis collection and modernist buildings; Nida and its dunes; Druskininkai and the spa.
I think Lithuanian culture is really unique, and I appreciate it more and more every day. I have met many special people in this country, and I will always cherish my time here.