Bones from Charlemagne's golden casket in Aachen Cathedral in Germany likely do belong to the warrior-king, say Swiss and German scientists who have studied the remains for 26 years.
"It might appear as an obvious conclusion but it isn't. Charlemagne was exhumed and reburied many times with parts of his body given away as relics, so identifying his skeleton is not an easy task," Frank Rühli, Head of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told Discovery News.
Rühli and colleagues announced the results of their research last week, 1,200 years after Charlemagne's death.
"The bones appear to belong to a single individual, an old and rather tall man. This matches contemporary descriptions of Charlemagne," Rühli said.
Charlemagne managed to forge the first empire in Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire. He died, possibly of pleurisy, after having ruled as Emperor for just over 13 years. Buried in the German Cathedral the same day as his death, on Jan. 18, 814, the father of Europe has not really rested in peace.
His tomb was first opened by the Emperor Otto III in the year 1000. According to contemporary chronicles, as Otto entered the underground chamber, he was struck by the vision of Charlemagne seated upon a throne, wearing a golden crown and holding a scepter, his fingernails sticking out the gloves.
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"He had not lost any of his members to decay, except only the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles's mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber and withdrew," the Chronicle of Novalesia, written about 1026, reported.
In 1165, Frederick I, also known as Barbarossa, re-opened the tomb, displayed the remains as holy relics, then buried Charles in a marble sarcophagus beneath the floor of the cathedral. Fifty years later, Frederick II re-interred him in a casket made of gold and silver.
In 1349, some of Charlemagne's bones were removed and kept as relics by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. After five undisturbed centuries, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire was exhumed again in 1861 for research purposes.
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Scientists reconstructed the skeletal remains and came to understand what may have been behind the emperor's names: Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus (meaning "Charles the Great" as well as "Charles the Big"). His skeleton suggested he was surprisingly tall for his time.
In 1988, scientists secretly opened his sarcophagus one more time to reveal 94 bones and bone fragments. The researchers also discovered bones in a golden bust that were believed to belong to the famous leader.
More recently, in 2010, Church authorities made available to Rühli and colleagues the left tibia from the Shrine.
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X-rays and CT scan analysis confirmed that Charlemagne was indeed a tall man, standing about 1.84 meters (6 feet) tall.
"He must have towered over 98 out of a 100 persons in his time," Rühli said.
Oddly, Charles's father, known as Pepin the Short, was just around 5 feet tall.
Analyzing the bone, Rühli and Australian colleague Maciej Henneberg also discovered that Charlemagne may have been thin. However, no serious illness was detected in the bones.
Image: Rühli and colleagues analyse Charlemagne's left tibia. Credit: Frank Rühli