Scientists in France have confirmed that a mummified head long thought to be that of murdered French king Henri IV is truly the head of the king. They digitally reconstructed the face of Henri IV from the head, which had spent decades resting in a retired tax collector’s attic.
The scientists used CT scanning – a medical imaging technology – to reconstruct a picture of the skull, which they believe to match portraits of the king. Henri IV had a lesion on his nose, and a hole in his right ear for an earring, which was the fashion of the time. Evidence of both was found on the head’s skin. (Yes, skin was still on the head after 400 years.) A few red and white mustache and head hairs remained on the head, matching what was reported to be Henri IV’s hair color at the time of his death. All of the head’s interior organs – the brain, the trachea, and vocal cords – were in good condition as well.
A research team led by forensic scientist and archaeologist Pierre Charlier announced these results in a December 2010 paper published in the British Medical Journal. In addition to reconstructing the king’s features, the team used a variety of forensic techniques to identify the head as belonging to Henri IV, who was assassinated in 1610 by a religious fanatic.
For example, radiocarbon dating dated the head back to the 17th century. However, the scientists wrote in their paper that they were not able to recover adequate DNA to provide conclusive genetic proof that the head was Henri IV’s. The scientists also remarked that it appears Henri did not have very good dental health, which prevented them from using dental records to identify him.
Henri IV had requested to be embalmed after his death, “in the style of the Italians,” as documented and described in historical records. The technique accounts for the good condition of the head. The embalmer covered Henri’s body in a charcoal that absorbed fluids and gases, and wrapped the head in cloth, which the researchers found when the skull believed to be his was rediscovered.
Henri IV was popular in life, and is now regarded as one of France’s greatest monarchs. But death has been hard on him. In 1793, revolutionaries ransacked Henri’s grave site and separated his head from his body. The head remained missing for over 200 years, until French journalist Stephane Gabet tracked it down in the tax collector’s attic. The tax collector had bought the alleged head of Henri IV at an auction house in 1955 for 5,000 francs – the equivalent of a few hundred dollars today.
Scientists commenting on the research have said the head cannot be conclusively identified as belonging to Henri IV without DNA evidence, but the forensic tests are convincing. The evidence that it is the skull of Henri IV is good enough for France – which plans to give the mummified head a national mass and funeral next year.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.