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Anthropology: The tell-tale heart of Richard the Lionheart

Scientific Reports

February 28, 2013

The remains of the embalmed heart of King Richard I have undergone a full biomedical analysis, over 800 years after his death. The research, published in Scientific Reports this week, identifies some of the materials used to embalm the heart, providing valuable insights about a period for during which post-mortem treatments and embalming procedures remain poorly understood.

Richard I, nicknamed Richard the Lionheart because of his reputation as a courageous warrior, died in Chalus, France, in 1199, after being wounded in battle. In keeping with practices of the time, the entrails were buried in Chalus, the heart was embalmed separately and buried in a coffin in Rouen Cathedral, and the rest of the body was buried at Fontevraud Abbey. A small lead box containing the remains of the heart - a whitish brown powder - was discovered in 1838 during the excavations of Rouen cathedral.

To better understand the context of the king’s death and the post-mortem treatment of the heart, Philippe Charlier and colleagues conducted a complete biomedical analysis on samples of the embalmed heart. The results indicate that the heart was embalmed with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury and, perhaps, lime, and wrapped in linen. The embalming process appears to have been driven by the goal of long-term tissue conservation, which was important given the 530-kilometre distance from Chalus to Rouen. The selection of some of the materials applied to the heart may also have been inspired by Biblical texts, the authors suggest.

doi: 10.1038/srep01296

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