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Science reveals secrets of the Lionheart's heart

March 01, 2013|By Eryn Brown
  • A crystal box contains the remains of the "highly fragmented mummified heart" of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart.
A crystal box contains the remains of the "highly fragmented mummified… (Philippe Charlier )

Using a variety of techniques, scientists in France have analyzed the "highly fragmented mummified heart" of England's King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, and discovered that the people who embalmed it, mostly likely cooks, used a combination of earthen and botanical elements -- from mercury to myrtle to frankincense -- to preserve the organ and give it a good smell.

Their measurements enhance anthropologists' understanding of medieval burial procedures, the researchers wrote in a report published online Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

King Richard earned his nickname on the battlefield, as a great warrior in campaigns across Europe and in the Holy Land (famously, he launched the Third Crusade to try to take Jerusalem back from the conqueror Saladin).  He died on April 6, 1199, in Chalus, France, nearly two weeks after sustaining an arrow wound during battle.  He was not wearing his chain mail, historians have reported.  He was 41 years old.

After his death, according to the custom of the time, Richard's body was divided into parts. Most of the King's remains were transported to be buried near his father, King Henry II, at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.  Some internal organs were removed and placed in a coffin on site.

His heart, however, was removed and afforded special treatment: It was embalmed, sealed in a lead box (engraved with the words HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM: "Here is the heart of Richard, King of England,") and delivered to the church of Notre-Dame in Rouen, France. There it presumably stayed until July 31, 1838, when it was discovered during excavations of the cathedral.

The French team, led by forensics expert Dr. Philippe Charlier, analyzed samples of what remained of the organ -- little more than "brown-whitish powder" -- to try to gain insight into how the organs were preserved. (Documents detailing late 12th century embalming methods are scarce, the researchers wrote in their study.)

Looking at the powder, Charlier and his colleagues couldn't identify any "clearly identifiable tissue."  But further analysis of antibodies confirmed human muscle origin for the "altered cell structures."  Other tests revealed the presence of pollen from myrtle, daisy, mint, pine, oak, poplar, plantain and bell-flower; large amounts of lead and tin and trace amounts of copper, mercury and antimony. There were resins, oils and tars--including frankincense--and there were bacteria in the sample too.

The lead and tin likely came from the box in which the heart was stored, but the mercury was likely a leftover from the embalming process, as were the myrtle, daisy and mint pollen grains.  So was the frankincense, wrote the team, who noted it "was a non-negligible part of all embalming process during medieval times" because it was associated with the birth and death of Jesus Christ, as described in the Bible.

The goal of the embalming, they added, would have been to preserve the heart long enough for it to survive the more than 300-mile trip to Rouen and to give it an "odour of sanctity" -- perhaps a concern for Richard, who had "a controversial life." 

The Lionhearted's heart is not the first royal remains studied by Charlier, who has been called the
"Indiana Jones of the graveyards." According to this 2012 profile in the New York Times, he analyzed remains long accepted to be those of Joan of Arc, determining in 2007 that they actually belonged to a cat and an Egyptian mummy. 

He also helped make a positive identification of the partially preserved severed head of the French monarch Henri IV, which had been sold at auction in 1919. The head, which still had hair and a beard, had been delivered to Charlier by an elderly man who had held onto it for decades.

Follow me on Twitter: @LATerynbrown.

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