Researchers conduct ‘virtual autopsy’ of 17th century mummified child

Researchers led by Dr. Andreas Nerlich of the University Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen performed a “virtual autopsy” of a mummified 17e child of the century, using cutting-edge science alongside historical documents to shed new light on Renaissance childhood.

The child was found in an Austrian aristocratic family crypt, where conditions allowed for natural mummification, preserving soft tissue containing vital information about his life and death.

The body was buried in an unmarked wooden coffin instead of the elaborate metal coffins reserved for other family members buried there.

The team performed a virtual autopsy and radiocarbon tests, and reviewed family records and key material clues from the burial to try to figure out who the child was and what his short life was like.

“This is just one case,” said Nerlich, lead author of the paper published today in Frontiers in Medicine, “but since we know that early infant mortality rates were generally very high at that time, our observations can have a considerable impact in the overall reconstruction of the lives of infants, even in the upper social classes.

The virtual autopsy was performed by computed tomography. Nerlich and his team measured bone lengths and examined tooth eruption and long bone formation to determine that the child was around a year old when he died. The soft tissues showed the child was a boy and overweight for his age, so his parents may have fed him well – but the bones told a different story.

The child’s ribs had become malformed in the pattern called a rickets, which is usually seen in severe rickets or scurvy. Although he received enough food to gain weight, he was still malnourished. While the typical tilt of the bones seen in rickets was absent, this may be due to him not walking or crawling.

Given that the virtual autopsy revealed that he suffered from inflammation of the lungs characteristic of pneumonia and that children with rickets are more vulnerable to pneumonia, this nutritional deficiency may even have contributed to his premature death.

“The combination of obesity with severe vitamin deficiency can only be explained by generally ‘good’ nutritional status with almost complete absence of sun exposure,” Nerlich said. “We need to reconsider the living conditions of the infants of the high aristocracy of previous populations.”

The son of a powerful earl

However, although Nerlich and his team have established a probable cause of death, the question of the child’s identity remains. The deformation of his skull suggested that his simple wooden coffin was not big enough for the child. However, a specialist examination of his clothes showed that he had been buried in a long, hooded coat of expensive silk.

He was also interred in a crypt reserved exclusively for the powerful Counts of Starhemberg, who buried their title holders – mostly firstborn sons – and their wives there. This meant that the child was most likely a firstborn son of a Count of Starhemberg.

Radiocarbon dating of a skin sample suggested he was buried between 1550 and 1635 AD, while historical records from the crypt management indicated that his burial probably took place after the renovation of the crypt. crypt circa 1600 AD. He was the only child buried in the crypt.

“We have no data on the fate of other children in the family,” Nerlich said, regarding the single burial. “According to our data, the infant was most likely [the count’s] first-born son after the erection of the family crypt, special precautions could therefore be applied.

That meant there was only one likely candidate for the little boy in the silk coat: Reichard Wilhelm, whose grieving family buried him alongside his namesake grandfather Reichard von Starhemberg.


Header image credit: Borders

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