Grave Doubts on the Shroud of Turin

What exactly is the famous Shroud of Turin? Archaeologist Shimon Gibson,  a senior research fellow at the  W.P. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, recently conducted a major study on a radiocarbon-dated 1st century B.C. burial shroud he and his colleagues excavated in a Jerusalem tomb.  This funerary cloth was  made very differently  from the  Shroud of Turin,  casting yet more cold water on the authenticity of the famous relic.  For more on this,  see my blog post today at Archaeology magazine.

The Sweet Side of Mummification

I started this week railing against a British television producer who is hunting for a terminally ill person to mummify in a new uber-sensational reality-based television show. All week this story has left a really bad taste in my mouth.  To wash it away,  I found a superb short video on mummification that was shot by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The curators based on the video on the techniques used by an Egyptian mortician some 2000 years ago to mummify a young man named Heracletes.   Short, sweet and to the point. And no cashing in on the misery of a terminally ill patient. Bingo.

The Bog Bodies’ Very Sad Fate

In late June 1904,  a Dutch farmer named Hilbrand Gringhuis was out cutting peat on the Netherlands side of  Bourtangermoor  when he uncovered something very unsettling:  a withered, nearly headless body resting,  it seemed, upon the arm of a second corpse.   Gringhuis immediately notified the local police,  who came out to investigate.  And,  in a time long before modern forensic science, the local constabulary decided to transfer the soggy cadavers to the nearest morgue in a very peculiar  fashion.

They rolled up the bodies of the two men like human scrolls, wrung them out, and stuffed them into what Wijnand van der Sanden,  the provincial archaeologist in Drenthe and the author of  Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe,   describes as a “starch box.”

The Weerdinge men,  shown drying out on a piece of cloth in today’s photo,  were of course bog bodies.  Radiocarbon-dated to some 1980 years ago,  they are two of the nearly 1900 such bodies either reported or recovered from bogs stretching from Ireland to Norway.  Like many of these bodies,  one of the Weerdinge men was the victim of extreme violence.   Modern forensic study shows that someone almost certainly stabbed him to death:  the victim’s withered brown intestines now tumble from the wound.

But the violence that these two bodies suffered after death disturbs me almost as much as the m.o. of their demise.  And I’m sorry to say that this unthinking destruction is part of a much larger pattern.  All across Europe,  companies are excavating,  mining and draining bogs.  Land developers, for example, are keen to reclaim wetlands for new housing developments.  And gardeners love to spread peat on their flower beds.   All those big plastic bags of peat you see in European plant nurseries come from once great bogs and wetlands.

Eerily preserved by the peculiar chemistry of bog water,  the bog bodies can tell us enormous amounts about subjects as diverse as ancient clothing,  diet,  and sacrificial practices.  But ironically,  as our interest in these curious-looking mummies grows and our ability to draw knowledge from their witheed flesh increases,  we are less and less likely to find them.  The large excavators that companies use to mine peat from bogs tend to chew up bodies before their drivers even realize what is happening.

And there is one other sad note to all this.  Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundqvist has posted a very thoughtful entry on his blog this morning about the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, which destroyed precious bogland in Sweden for what Rundqvist calls “no practical gain.”  In other words,  the money-making schemes behind all this environmental destruction never panned out.  And who knows how many bog bodies were obliterated in the process?

Photo courtesy of the Drents Museum, Assen.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.