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The mystery of a medieval anatomical specimen

Anterior view of a 13th century anatomical specimen. Image credit: Bill Jamieson from the Archives of Medical Science.

Anterior and posterior views of the 13th century anatomical specimens. Image credit: Bill Jamieson from the Archives of Medical Science.

Anterior and posterior views of the 13th century anatomical specimens. Image credit: Bill Jamieson from the Archives of Medical Science.

In 2003, a medical antiquities dealer sold an unusual item, a partial mummified body, to a private Canadian collector. This specimen only consisted of a partial skull, neck, and top of the torso, and measured 17.3 inches by 18.9 inches (44cm x 48cm). Very little was known about his dissected body, so a team of forensic scientists came together to shed some light on this medical artifact.

A multidisciplinary analysis, which included an anthropological analysis, genetic tests, radiological examination, and radiocarbon dating, was conducted on the mummified body in 2012. Philippe Charlier, from the Department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology at the University Hospital R. Poincaré, and colleagues published their research in an article titled “A glimpse into the early origins of medieval anatomy through the oldest conserved human dissection (Western Europe, 13th c. A.D.).”

A morphological examination revealed rodent bite marks and traces of insect infestation. When scientists looked closely enough they could even see red facial hair. The person who preserved this specimen sawed off the top of the skull, removed the brain, and sectioned the torso horizontally several inches below the shoulders. Researchers observed saw marks on the 4th and 5th thoracic vertebrae, both scapular bodies, the sternal manubrium, and parts of the 2nd through 5th left and right ribs.1

After an anthropological analysis of the skull, the team estimated that this was a Caucasian male who was at least 45 years old when he died. They observed osteoarthritis in the jaw (temporomandibular joint) and collarbones (clavicles). The team also found that the man also experienced major tooth loss before he died because he had only the front 8 teeth in his lower jaw (mandible).1

Charlier and his team mentioned an “intense wood smoke odor” associated with the dissected body and thought it was possible that smoking was used to mummify the corpse. The preservation method also included a mixture of a form of mercury called cinnabar, Cassel earth, and gypsum injected into the veins and arteries. Charlier et al write that the presence of the red mercury-based vascular filling maybe “indirect proof of the use of syringes – or, at least, vascular injection material – during the 13th c.”1

A tissue sample was extracted for a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test to try to find out where the man’s matrilineal ancestors originated. But the recovered genetic sequence was not long enough to determine a mitochondrial haplogroup. Although the tests did confirm that the specimen is indeed male.1

Researchers weren’t able to discern the identity of this mummified corpse, his cause of death, or who preserved his remains. 1

Another tissue sample was taken for radiocarbon dating and the results showed that the anatomical specimen dates to the medieval period between 1200 and 1280 A.D. This date range makes this specimen important, because, according to Charlier et al., “Fragments of dissected human bodies dating from before the 19th century are rare and are mainly found in archaeological contexts.” 1

This partial cadaver was preserved at a time when the practice of human dissection was revived at medical schools after being dormant in Europe since the time of the ancient Greeks. Greek physicians, like Herophilus and Erasistratus, practiced anatomical dissections in the 3rd century B.C. 1  But in subsequent centuries, Greek and Roman physicians preferred surface examinations of the human body or the dissection of animals. The practice went into decline across Europe during the Dark Ages, or the early part of the Medieval Period, between 500 and 1000 A.D. 1

There was a renewed interest in the study of medicine in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries thanks to the spread of universities. Mondino de Liuzzi, a physician who taught at the University of Bologna who is credited with being the first to reintroduce the instruction of anatomy in medical schools, conducted the first public dissection in Europe since Herophilus and Erasistratus on a criminal’s corpse in 1315.1,2,3 Although cadaveric dissections started to be performed in these early European medical schools, they were heavily regulated by the church and local governments.1,4

The reemergence of anatomical dissections in Europe led to the advent of European forensic science. The earliest written record of a European autopsy happened in Italy in 1286 and was conducted so that a physician could determine the source of an epidemic.1 In 1315, the city of Bologna became the first European city to establish a system of forensic examinations by experts.5

The anatomical research and forensic science are linked because advances in the former lead to progress in the latter.  The knowledge of normal and abnormal anatomy is necessary for medical examiners to accurately determine cause of death. For example, medical examiners need to understand how diseases affect various organs, the effects of poison on the body, or the signs of inconspicuous fatal injuries in a corpse. So the discovery of artifacts that relate to the history of medicine, particularly the field anatomy, are really interesting especially if forensic science can be used to reveal a little bit about the specimens…sort of like a circle of science.


References cited

  1. Charlier, P., Huynh-Charlier, I., Poupon, J., Lancelot, E., Campos, P.F., Favier, D., Jeannel, G.F., Bonati, M.R., Lorin del la Grandmaison, G., Hervé, C. (2014 May 12). A glimpse into the early origins of medieval anatomy through the oldest conserved human dissection (Western Europe, 13th A.D.). Retrieved from:
  2. Mondino De’ Luzzi. (n.d.) Retrieved from:
  3. Mavrodi, A. and Paraskevas, G. (2014 February). Mondino de Luzzi: a luminous figure in the darkness of the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  4. Ghosh, S.K. (2015 September). Human cadaveric dissection: a historical account from ancient Greece to the modern era. Retrieved from:!po=4.97076
  5. McKnight, B.E.  Introduction. The Washing Away of Wrongs: Forensic Medicine in Thirteenth-Century China (Science, Medicine, and Technology in East Asia) by Sung Tz’u, 1247.  Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1981, pp. 1-34.
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