LOS ANGELES - DM  - A relic hunter dubbed ‘Indiana Bones’ has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe.

Art historian Paul Koudounaris hunted down and photographed dozens of gruesome skeletons in some of the world’s most secretive religious establishments.

Incredibly, some of the skeletons, said to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, were even found hidden away in lock-ups and containers.

They are now the subject of a new book, which sheds light on the forgotten ornamented relics for the first time.

Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican.

Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the morbid relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife.

They were also symbols of the Catholic Church’s newly found strength in previously Protestant areas.

Each one was painstakingly decorated in thousands of pounds worth of gold, silver and gems by devoted followers before being displayed in church niches.

Some took up to five years to decorate.

They were renamed as saints, although none of them qualified for the title under the strict rules of the Catholic church which require saints to have been canonised. But by the 19th century they had become morbid reminders of an embarrassing past and many were stripped of their honours and discarded.

Mr Koudounaris’ new book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, is the first time the skeletons have appeared in print.