Mummy Poo Solves 700-Year-Old Murder Mystery

A study of fecal matter from a medieval warlord -- the patron of the poet Dante Alighieri -- suggests he was poisoned with a deadly heart-stopping plant called foxglove. Continue reading →

Analysis of fecal matter from the natural mummy of Cangrande della Scala, a medieval warlord and the patron of the poet Dante Alighieri, has established the Italian nobleman was poisoned with a deadly heart-stopping plant known as Digitalis or foxglove.

The most powerful man in the history of Verona, to whom Dante dedicated part of the "Divine Comedy," Cangrande della Scala (1291-1329) died at the age of 38 on 22 July 1329.

"He became sick with vomit and diarrhoea just a few days after winning control over the city of Treviso," Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, told Discovery News.

Medieval Poison Ring Used for Political Murders

The Treviso victory was the last act in Cangrande's long struggle to control the entire region of Veneto in northern Italy.

According to contemporary accounts, he had contracted the disease a few days before by "drinking from a polluted spring."

Rumors of poisoning immediately started to spread. In 2004, 675 years after Cangrande's death, Fornaciari's team exhumed the nobleman's body from a richly decorated marble tomb in the church of Santa Maria Antica in Verona.

"The natural mummy, still wearing its precious clothes, appeared in good state of preservation," Fornaciari and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Lying on the back with the arms folded across the chest, the 5-foot, 7-inch mummy was initially studied using digital X-ray and CT scans.

These showed regurgitated food in the throat, signs of arthritis in the elbows and hips, evidence of tuberculosis and possible cirrhosis.

The abdominal CT scans also showed the presence of feces in the rectum, allowing Fornaciari and colleagues to extract a sample.

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Analyses of the feces showed the presence of pollen grains of chamomile, black mulberry and, "totally unexpected, of foxglove (Digitalis sp. perhaps purpurea)," the researchers said.

Toxicological analyses confirmed concentrations of digoxin and digitoxin, two Digitalis glycosides, both in the liver and in the faeces.

"Although it is not possible to rule out totally an accidental intoxication, the most likely hypothesis is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis," Fornaciari and colleagues concluded.

Indeed, the gastrointestinal symptoms showed by Cangrande in the last hours of his life and described by historical sources are compatible with the early phase of Digitalis intoxication.

According to the researchers, the foxglove poison may have been masked in a decoction containing chamomile, largely used as a sedative and antispasmodic drug, and black mulberry, used as astringent, which was prepared for some indisposition of Cangrande.

‘Sardonic Grin' Has Roots in Poisonous Herb

Following Cangrande's death, one of his physicians was hanged by his successor and nephew Mastino II.

"This adds more weight to the possibility that foul play was at least suspected, although who was ultimately behind the killing is likely to remain a mystery," Fornaciari said.

Cangrande certainly had enemies. Among the principal suspects are the neighboring states, the Republic of Venice or Ducate of Milan, worried about the growing power of Cangrande.

But the murderer could have also been someone closer to Cangrande.

"It could have well been Mastino II himself," Fornaciari said.

Image: Stone lid of the sarcophagus with Cangrande's portrait (A); the body at the moment of opening (B), still wrapped in his precious clothes (C) and at the beginning of the autopsy (D). Credit: Gino Fornaciari/University of Pisa

A young, short man with a slight resemblance to Michael Jackson, a woman with an elaborate hairstyle and an older woman who could slip, unnoticed, into today's society -- all died some 2,000 years ago but now facial reconstructions of the ancient Egyptians have brought them back to life.

The reconstructions were unveiled today at McGill University's Redpath Museum.

"People are amazed by mummies, but never more so, I've found, when they can see the face," said anthropologist Andrew Wade of Western University.

The high tech process, involving CT scanning and multiple scientific disciplines, recreates what the three individuals looked like as they were laid to rest nearly 2,000 years ago.

Here, a mummy is set to go into a CT scanner.

Mummies of a young male, a young female and an older woman were virtually unwrapped using CT scanning. Models of their bone structure were then created.

Barbara Lawson, a curator at the Redpath Museum who also worked on the project, added that all three mummies were scanned at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital as part of Western University's IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database Project.

Forensic artist Victoria Lywood undertook the actual reconstruction work, which was based on the 3-D high-resolution images along with ultrasonic images and anthropological research.

A step in the process involved sketching what the individuals would have looked like.

Some have detected a facial resemblance, at least from the front profile, with the late pop star Michael Jackson. Jackson was, in fact, very interested in Egyptian history, which might have influenced some of his personal style.

The Theban male died between the ages of 20-30. His mummy was purchased in Thebes, his likely place of death.

The young man was "relatively short in stature," according to Wade.

Lywood is one of the world's leading experts on such recreations.

"I reconstruct modern-day skulls, archaeological remains and fragmentary skulls," she told Discovery News. "The oldest I have constructed was from 6,000 years ago found in Israel. While there were people of all sizes throughout the ages, my experience is that skull size was much smaller than modern populations."

This Ptolemaic female was a "late adolescent girl or young woman of average height and elite status," Wade said. "Her age at death is estimated at between 18 and 24 years."

Her mummy was found "in a tomb pit in the solid rock near Hawara el-Makta in Fayum (Lower Egypt) and acquired in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century and donated to the Redpath Museum in 1895," Lawson said.

Clearly ancient Egyptians prized fashionable coifs, given the complexity of the young woman's hairstyle.

Her hair must have been fixed before mummification, perhaps in hopes of sending her off to the next life looking her best.

The hairdo of a young ancient Egyptian female was reconstructed on a modern woman.

The reconstructed young woman is shown here without her wig. Clearly her hair was a big part of her look.

The oldest individual of the three was this woman -- likely a tall, upper middle-class adult between the ages of 30 and 50 years old.

If she were alive today, this woman (at least based on her physical appearance) would probably fit right in with modern society.

As Wade said, "Humans have been physically pretty much the same for the last 2,000 years...That's not to say that evolution has stopped working on us, but the time frame of 2,000 years is just a drop in the bucket for noticeable physical changes and we've reduced the need for physical changes by adapting culturally."

The three ancient Egyptian people died at somewhat different times and never knew each other. But, as reconstructions, the early Egyptians will spend even more time together, because they will star in a new display in the Redpath Museum's World Cultures gallery starting in February.