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Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, prepares to show one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina


MADRID (Reuters) - Archaeologists excavating a mass grave from Spain's 1936 to 1939 Civil War have found the naturally preserved brains of 45 people eight decades after they were shot and buried on a hillside in the northern province of Burgos.

Spain has hundreds of mass graves from the war and from ensuing decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. Very few have been dug up due to a lack of funding and Spain's "pact of forgetting" on its return to democracy in the 1970s.

The brains from some of the bodies in the La Pedraja grave were preserved by very specific environmental conditions after heavy rains seeped into bullet holes in their skulls. This "saponification" process turned them into a soap-like substance.

A preserved heart has also been unearthed, an unprecedented finding, says forensic scientist Fernando Serrulla who worked on the dig and has published a study with details of the discovery.

"Naturally preserved brains are very rare," Serrulla said. "There are only around 100 documented cases in the world."

The brains are being kept in a laboratory in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where Serrulla works. Shrivelled, brown and with the ridges still showing, they form the largest collection of naturally preserved human brains in the world, he says.

None of the preserved organs and only 16 of the 104 bodies dug up from the grave have been identified.

Rafael Martinez, the president of a socialist association killed by Franco's supporters in 1936, was recently identified as one of the bodies in La Pedraja.

"If only those brains could tell of what happened there," his grandson, Miguel Angel Martinez, said.

(Reporting by Alba Asenjo; Editing by Sonya Dowsett and Louise Ireland)

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