Researchers Unlock the Mystery of the Mummified Lung of a Merovingian Queen

Researchers Unlock the Mystery of the Mummified Lung of a Merovingian Queen

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In 1959, an inexplicably well-preserved lung was found in a stone sarcophagus in the Basilica of St. Denis, Paris, France. Since then, researchers have often wondered just how the lung of the 6th century Merovingian Queen Arnegunde had withstood the passage of time so well. Now, an international team of researchers has found a somewhat surprising explanation.

The remains of Queen Arnegunde were found in 1959 by the archaeologist Michel Fleury. Along with the skeleton and preserved lung were a strand of hair, jewelry, and several fragments of textiles and leather. A gold signet ring, with the inscription "Arnegundis" showed that the remains belonged to the Merovingian Queen Arnegunde (c. 515/520-580) - one of the six wives of King Clotaire I (c. 497 – 29 November 561), and the mother of King Chilpéric I (c. 539 – September 584).

Sarcophagus of Queen Arnegunde, Basilica of St. Denis, Paris, France.

Sarcophagus of Queen Arnegunde, Basilica of St. Denis, Paris, France. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Although the jewelry and fine quality of the queen’s clothing have attracted the attention of some scholars, others were taken in by the strange state of the lung. According to Discovery News , questions soon arose if the lung had been naturally mummified or artificially preserved.

In search of the answer, Raffaella Bianucci of the University of Turin led an international team of researchers in the analysis of the lung. Bianucci said in a meeting at the International Conference of Comparative Mummy Studies that they scanned lung biopsies with an electron microscope. The surface of the lung tissue showed a massive concentration of copper ion. Furthermore, they found large quantities of a copper oxide throughout the lung biopsies. A biochemical analysis also showed low levels of benzoic acid and related compounds in the lung. Bianucci explained that: “These substances are widespread in the plant kingdom and similar profiles have been already reported in the balms of Egyptian mummified bodies.”

The researchers say that their results support a theory that Arnegunde’s body might have received an oral injection of a fluid made of spices/aromatic plants, which had settled in her lung. Bianucci told Discovery News: “Since Arnegunde was wearing a copper alloy belt around her waist, we speculate the copper oxide in the lungs is from weathering of the belt. The preserving properties of copper, combined with the spice embalming treatment, might have allowed the preservation of the lungs.”

Belt plaques from the finery set of Queen Aregund (Arnegunde).

Belt plaques from the finery set of Queen Aregund (Arnegunde). ( Public Domain )

Apparently, the Merovingians had adopted their ideas on artificial mummification for their elites from the Romans, who had learned it from the Egyptians . Nonetheless, the practice they used was not as complex as the Egyptians was: “Clearly the Merovingian mummification was much less sophisticated. It was essentially based on the use of oil and resin-soaked linen strips used with spices and aromatic plants such as thyme, nettles, myrrh and aloe,” Bianucci said.

Queen Arnegunde was King Clotaire I’s third wife. Stories tell that she married the king after her sister, Ingund (another of the king’s wives), had asked him to find Arnegunde a husband. It is uncertain if the king had a romantic interest in Arnegunde, or had taken her as a wife to appease Ingund.

Arnegunde died in her sixties. She was a slim woman who was 1.50 – 1.60 meters (4.92-5.25 ft.) tall and it is believed that she limped since childhood, perhaps from having contracted polio in her youth. She also suffered from other ailments: arthritis in her upper and lower spine, and Forestier’s disease (an abnormal thickening of bones, which is often linked to diabetes). When she died she was buried with fine jewelry and other grave goods.

Pair of fibulae from the finery set of Queen Aregund and a ring inscribed with the name ARNEGUNDIS.

Pair of fibulae from the finery set of Queen Aregund. ( Public Domain ) Ring inscribed with the name ARNEGUNDIS. ( musée d'Archéologie nationale )

As mentioned above, the queen’s burial clothing has also captured the attention of some scholars . Her clothes were made of precious Byzantine silks and had embroidery stitched with gold thread. In preparation for her final resting place, she was dressed in a reddish silk coat over a violet silk tunic, and red shoes and a red and yellow silk veil. She was then wrapped in a hemp shroud, or had been covered with a hemp cloth.

An interpretation of Queen Arnegunde in her burial clothing.

An interpretation of Queen Arnegunde in her burial clothing. ( Siglindesarts's Blog )

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