400-Year-Old Embalmed Hearts Found Infected With Disease

Posted: Dec 3 2015, 6:24am CST | by , Updated: Dec 3 2015, 7:03pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

400-Year-Old Embalmed Hearts Found Infected with Disease
This is a heart-shaped lead urn with an inscription identifying the contents as the heart of Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac. Credit: Image by Rozenn Colleter, Ph.D./INRAP
  • Imaging Techniques yield Data regarding Cardiac Problems in Long-Since Buried People

Certain imaging techniques have yielded data regarding cardiac problems in long-since buried people at an archaeological site.

Hearts of buried people that were laid in their graves some 400 years ago have had imaging techniques applied to them in order to analyze their health status. The whole process took place at the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France.

Several burial sites were excavated that dated back 300 to 400 years. There were many items buried along with the dead bodies. These included heart-shaped urns which contained, in a preserved state, human hearts.

Radiologists along with a forensics expert managed to thoroughly analyze the hearts. There were several other assisting professionals and the site was studied from corner to corner. MRI and CT scans were employed among the repertoire of probing devices.

The images of the hearts were pretty good in their quality thereby showing that they had been preserved in the best manner possible. However, the embalming process did not allow for much knowledge to be generated regarding the hearts.

Furthermore, care had to be taken not to destroy them. Thus the hearts were first cleaned up. The embalming material was washed away as a result.

Then the MRI and CT scans were conducted all over again. The novel CT scans allowed the scientists present to discern the various features of cardiac anatomy. This included in its rubric such important design elements as chambers, valves and arteries.

Then the hearts underwent some rehydration. The result was that the myocardial muscles became prominent under the concomitant MRI scans.

"We tried to see if we could get health information from the hearts in their embalmed state, but the embalming material made it difficult," said study author Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, M.D., radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France. "We needed to take necessary precautions to conduct the research carefully in order to get all possible information."

Further techniques proved useful. These included vivisection, surface study and histology. One of the hearts was absolutely healthy. But three of them were diseased. Deposits of plaque were detected in the arteries. As for the fifth heart, it had not been thoroughly preserved, so examining it proved to be an exercise in futility.

"Since four of the five hearts were very well preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis," Dr. Mokrane said.

One of the hearts had belonged to a knight and had been buried alongside his deceased wife’s heart. This tradition was very romantic and chivalrous and belonged to that age in history when there were knights in shining armor who came to rescue damsels in distress.

The fact that four of the five hearts were fit enough to be studied led to valuable research regarding the cardiac diseases in that period in history.

It just goes to prove that belonging to another era on the time scale doesn’t mean the diseases people contracted were any different from our current modern period.

"It was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife," Dr. Mokrane said. "This was the case with one of our hearts. It's a very romantic aspect to the burials."

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