Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie, December 9, 2015.
One of the questions I get quite a bit is “when do bodies turn to bone?” This may be a question relating to general curiosity about what has happened to the remains of a loved one, questions about the accuracy of popular TV shows, or concerns about whether one is going to run into an old pet burial during gardening. This may seem like a straightforward question- we know that bodies decompose and break down over time. But there are dozens (if not hundreds) of factors that we need to take into account when answering this question, and often we don’t really know the preservation until we actually do the excavation. Decomposition and preservation depend on the environmental conditions of the region, the geological conditions of the ground, the cultural and social conditions of the burial, and the physical remains themselves. Are there fluctuations in weather? How wet is the area? Is it dry or waterlogged? Is the soil acidic? Was the individual buried in something? How was the body treated prior to burial? Has the grave been disturbed by humans or animals? These are just a few of the questions that run through my head when faced with this question.
Today, I want to look at two cases of preservation: embalmed hearts and preserved skin. The first is a purposeful preservation, whereby there was a cultural intervention to assure decomposition would not occur. The second is a contextual preservation, whereby the environmental and situational conditions of the burial led to preservation. In both cases, we end up with information about the deceased that we wouldn’t be able to get from the skeleton alone.
Urn holding the heart of Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac
During excavations of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France, archaeologists unearthed several grave sites dating back to the late 16th or early 17th century. One of the findings during this excavation was that within the burial vaults of a number of elite families, five heart shaped urns were recovered. The urns were made of lead and contained an embalmed heart. In order to learn more about the hearts and the individuals they came from, the hearts were removed from the urn and cleaned, then they were subjected to modern imaging techniques. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) were used to examine the structures of the hearts. One heart appeared healthy and showed no obvious of disease. Three of the hearts had evidence of plaque was found on the coronary arteries, indicating some type of heart disease. The fifth heart was not as well preserved and could not be examined to the full extent.
One of the heart-shaped urns also had an inscription on it, which identified it as belonging to Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac. Perrien himself was not identified as being buried at the site, however, his wife is located there. When Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, died, she was buried with the preserved heart within the inscribed urn. De Quengo herself was also quite well preserved– she had been buried in a sealed lead coffin, which preserved her body and clothing. She was dressed in simple religious vestaments, including a cape, chasuble (robe-like outer vestment), a brown wool habit, a plain linen shirt, woolen leg warmers, and leather shoes with cork soles. Her hands were joined around a crucifix. Based on this, researchers believe that after she was widowed, it was possible that she entered a monastery. It is a wonderfully romantic touch that she was buried with her husband’s heart.
Investigating the body of Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac
In both these cases, with the heart and the body of de Quengo, the goal was preservation. The embalming material and placement in the lead containers was meant to arrest the decomposition process and protect the body. Since study, de Quengo has been reburied, and hopefully her husband’s heart will be returned to her side.
Preserved Bog Bodies
On the other side of the coin is the amazing preservation occurring with bog bodies. These individuals are not buried in lead coffins meant to protect their mortal remains from decomposition. They are not treated with embalming fluids or other methods of preserving their bodies. The acidic and oxygen-deprived nature of bogs means that the soft tissue of the bodies is preserved and protected over hundreds of years. The oldest bog body found dates to around 4,000 years old and still has its skin completely intact! However, this fact may have not been known at the time that they were deposited in the bog, or perhaps it wasn’t known whether they would be preserved so perfectly. We also know that this was a minority ritual; only certain individuals were placed there.
Bog body of Haraldskær Woman
In general, it has been interpreted that the bog bodies are the remains of people who were criminals, witches or did something negative in their life. This conclusion is supported by the nature of their deaths- Graubelle Man had his throat cut, Tollund Man was hanged, Lindow Man was beaten, stabbed and possibly strangled. However, new evidence is challenging this argument. Chemical analysis of the bodies of two female bog bodies from Denmark, Huldremose Woman and Haraldskær Woman, revealed that they had traveled long distances prior to their deaths, and also had been dressed in fine clothing that did not fully preserve in the bog. Plant fibers found on the skin indicate that they were likely dressed in clothing from regions outside of Denmark. Based on this, they propose a different reason for their deaths- they were sacrifices, gifts to the otherworld. Other opinions are that they may have been outsiders who did not practice the primary rituals of the people they died amongst, or were captives from war. It is nice to see alternative theories about these individuals, since we really don’t have all the evidence yet! Luckily, they are preserved well and there is still a lot of information we can get from their remains.