Throughout history, embalming has often been associated with a culture’s traditions of their deceased. The Chinchorro, Chinese, Jaboudi, and Peruvian are among the earliest cultures known to perform embalming. However, it is probably most synonymous with the Egyptians. Their process was quite intricate as Egyptian priests removed organs to be placed in jars while preparing the body for preservation. It was believed the deceased would need to use their body in the afterlife.
The aforementioned cultures are known for embalming but there are plenty of cultures that embalm, albeit not the whole body. In 16th century France, hearts were often embalmed because they were considered a spiritual symbol. With that in mind, five embalmed hearts were recently discovered. One of the hearts was actually buried with the wife of the heart’s owner.
According to a report by Daily Mail, the five embalmed hearts inside of heart-shaped urns made of lead were discovered beneath the ruins of a medieval convent in France. The hearts date back to the 16th or early 17th centuries which was a time when the convent was a very important burial and pilgrimage site. For the archaeologists, the embalmed hearts were an extraordinary find, but what is even more extraordinary is how well the embalmed hearts were preserved. Archaeologists found it to be an opportunity to medically examine the hearts to learn more about the health of the people back then.
Study author Dr. Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, a radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse, provided initial details on trying to examine the embalmed hearts.
“We tried to see if we could get health information from the hearts in their embalmed state, but the embalming material made it difficult.”
The archaeologists had to work around the embalming material so they carefully cleaned the hearts before re-scanning them. On the new set of CT images, they were able to identify the parts of the heart such as chambers, valves, and arteries. They then rehydrated the hearts to better identify the heart muscles with MRI. Experts found that three of the hearts showed atherosclerosis, plaque build-up in the coronary arteries. This was proof that heart disease, the kind we see in today’s society, was present back in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It is however believed only noblemen suffered from it because they perhaps indulged in rich diets.
There is a bit of romance to this discovery as well, as one heart was buried with the owner’s wife. According to Ancient Origins, the heart of Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, who died in 1646 and was buried at the Savior near Carhay in the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites on August 30, 1649. It was buried with the body of his wife, Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who died in 1656. Apparently when the archaeologists excavated Louise’s remains, her body was perfectly preserved in its coffin. She was even still wearing a cape, wool dress, bonnet, and leather shoes with cork soles.
As of now, the discovery of heart disease found in the embalmed hearts are being presented at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. It will be used to present a case that atherosclerosis is not a recent pathology.
[Image via French National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research]