Explorer of the Week: Dario Piombino-Mascali

Dario Piombino-Mascali’s work requires a high tolerance to some creepy situations. Documenting the huge number of mummified remains present in his native island, Sicily, and also throughout the world, our Explorer of the Week’s time is often spent with the remains of folks who died hundreds of years ago. He discovered a secret formula that preserved one toddler’s body so well that she was dubbed “Sleeping Beauty.” Even in his downtime, Piombino-Mascali enjoys collecting old photographs of the museum he curates, the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.

What project are you working on now?

As you know, I am a physical anthropologist specializing in mummy studies, and I work with a number of institutions dealing with the topic. Recent projects included the investigation of anatomical mummies/specimens from the north of Italy, the study of a Dutch bog body known as the Zweelo woman, the investigation of some Egyptian mummies curated in the Vatican Museums, and the investigation of the preserved bodies found in a crypt in Vilnius, Lithuania. However, my biggest project is still the Sicily Mummy Project, which I have been working on since 2007. It’s aimed at investigating the huge number of mummies present in my native island, Sicily, in the south of Italy. I am trying very hard to find a solution to rescue those mummies which are in extreme danger because of the changed environmental conditions, especially those in Palermo. In Palermo I act as Honorary Inspector for the Mummified Biocultural Heritage of Sicily, working hard to protect, valorise, and study the mummies of Sicily, located in several towns and villages such as Piraino, Savoca, and Gangi. I am also collaborating with the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila to set up a project on the mummies of Kabayan, North Luzon, which are also in danger. I am planning to write a scientific report for a magazine, possibly National Geographic.

Learn more about the preserved bodies found in the crypt in Vilnius, Lithuania:

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, would it be and why?
I believe it would be Ron Beckett, one of my U.S. colleagues whose work on mummies in Papua New Guinea has been an inspiration to me.
What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?
I know that there is still so much on this planet that deserves attention and care. We will go much further.
What one item do you always have with you?
My digital camera, so I can always keep memories of what I have seen.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
Every mummy I investigate is a surprise to me, but for obvious reasons my biggest achievement is the study of little Rosalia of Palermo. Her body is astonishingly preserved, despite some external darkening due to oxidation.

Do you have any hobbies?
I continue to collect historical crypt postcards. I am including one of the Capuchin Catacombs – Corridor of the Priests from my private collection. I hope to create an exhibition sooner or later!

Postcard courtesy Dario Piombino-Mascali
Postcard courtesy Dario Piombino-Mascali

What is your favorite food?
I like sushi because it isn’t heavy and it tastes great. It’s perfect for both day and night.

What are you reading?
The Igorot Mummies by Ike Picpican, which is a careful report on the Filipino mummified human remains. This is extremely useful for my current research.

What are you listening to?
“Princess of China” by Coldplay. It’s a great combination of one of my favorite British bands with the great voice of Rihanna.

If you were to meet your 8-year-old self, what would you say?
I would probably say that the time spent revising is never wasted.

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I would buy a small house, on a remote, little, exotic island, and would go there with my loved ones.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would they play as your ‘signature song?’
“Take on Me” by A-Ha, a masterpiece from the 1980s

Watch A-Ha perform “Take on Me”:

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

What is your hidden talent that not many people know about?
I am a good cook and I enjoy it; it chills me out.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
They are all so great that it would be impossible to choose one.

Dario Checks His Latest Catacomb Postcard
Collecting old postcards of the catacombs, Photograph courtesy Dario Piombino-Mascali

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
It is the article by Dr. Hawass on the royal Egyptian mummies. Such a great achievement; I am so proud of my colleagues.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
Difficult to say; we should make any possible effort to preserve all species—it is our duty.



Meet the Author
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.