It’s a hard life (and death) being a French king. Even if you’re popular, you’re assassinated. Revolutionaries disinter your body long after your death and make off with your mummified head. And then finally, 400 years after your death, your head supposedly turns up in the garage of a collector.
This week a team led by Philippe Charlier reports to have identified the head of the monarch in this story, France’s King Henri IV. The researchers report their find in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, which is known for its tradition of bizarre topics and occasional spoof articles, but Charlier and company appear to be on the level about identifying the remains of the first Bourbon king.
Known as “the green gallant” in his time, Henri’s extraordinary popularity didn’t prevent him from being whacked in 1610—then having his remains ransacked by revolutionaries nearly 200 years later. Reports of his head passing between private hands have surfaced over the centuries, most recently after one collector bought it for three francs in 1919, then tried—and failed—to have it authenticated for display in French museums. It came into possession of an 84 year-old man who has kept it stashed in his garage since 1955. [TIME]
Charlier and colleagues say they could not recover uncontaminated samples of mitochondrial DNA, which would have allowed for genetic testing. So, as an alternative, they found several ways to compare what was left of the embalmed head to what historians know about Henri IV (not to be confused with Henry IV of England, subject of two Shakespeare plays).
The elites of ancient Egypt had money, power, divine status in the case of the pharaohs, and also heart disease. In a study in today’s issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers reports performing x-ray scans of 20 Egyptian mummies and finding them rife with cardiovascular disease like clogged arteries, one of the commonest ailments in modern American society.
On a visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, one of the researchers had been intrigued by a nameplate on the remains of Pharaoh Merenptah, who died in 1,203BC. The plate said the pharaoh died at the age of 60 and suffered diseased arteries, arthritis and tooth decay [The Guardian]. So the scientists obtained permission to scan that mummy and others in the museum collection.
The common people of ancient Egypt weren’t mummified; only elites like royal families, their nursemaids, and priests got such a treatment. The elites ate salted fish, bread, and cheese like everyone else, but they also dined on rich foods such as cow, sheep, and goat meat, as well as honey and cakes with butter, says Abdel Nureldin, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University, who worked on the investigation. At the same time, virtually no one in ancient times was sedentary, and that may have helped counteract their fatty diets [ScienceNOW Daily News].
The first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy, performed back in 1825, might have botched the cause of death. The original ruling was that the mummified woman, Irtyersenu, died of ovarian cancer, but a new study strongly suggests she died of tuberculosis [BBC News]. The original autopsy was performed by one Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville, a surgeon and a gynecologist (and apparently a fan of infectious diseases; he personally overcame bouts with malaria, bubonic plague and yellow fever).
Irtyersenu is a remarkable specimen in that she was mummified with her organs intact. Most mummies have their organs removed or dissolved inside their bodies prior to mummification. Dr. Granville was correct in detecting that the mummified woman had an ovarian tumor—but later studies determined it was benign. Granville studied her pelvic bone and also determined the woman to be an overweight mother between the ages of 50-55 when she died.