Five heart-shaped lead boxes dating to the 16th and 17th centuries were exhumed from the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France. When opened, they revealed that the symbolic shape represented their contents: five human hearts. Archaeologists this month announced that the hearts have health conditions that remain problematic today, while representing the long memorial tradition of heart burial.
As presented this month at the meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, archaeologists with the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research in collaboration with researchers at the Molecular Anthropology and Synthesis Imaging and the Institute of Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases, used the hearts as a rare opportunity to examine organic matter from 400 years ago.
After carefully removing the embalming material, the hearts were scanned with both MRI and CT, with three revealing atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque builds up in the heart’s arteries. As the organization’s abstract notes, “until now, no radiological examination of archeological hearts was described in the literature data.”
Beyond the vital health data which could help study heart conditions today, the hearts are incredibly preserved examples of this obscure burial practice. Study author Fatima-Zohra Mokrane stated in a release that it “was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife. This was the case with one of our hearts. It’s a very romantic aspect to the burials.”
Earlier this year, researchers examined the remarkably preserved mummy of Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, still wearing her dress, shoes, and other funereal clothing, found in the same Rennes crypt. (The Jacobin convent is undergoing work to transform it into a congress center.) Near her body was one of the five heart urns, which when cleaned revealed an inscription stating it was the heart of Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, her late husband.
Heart burial had its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Crusades took many Europeans far from their homes, and often just their hearts were sent back upon death. Yet it never entirely faded from fashion — Frankenstein author Mary Shelley kept what she believed as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart in a silk bag in her desk, while neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova’s heart was interred in a huge marble pyramid in Venice (his hand was also enshrined at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia).
Around the time the five hearts were extracted and buried in Rennes, another elaborate heart monument was created in France by sculptor Ligier Richier at the Church of St. Étienne in Bar-le-Duc. Memorializing the late René de Chalon who died suddenly in 1544, it has a rotting skeleton holding a heart aloft. This organ was once de Chalon’s real heart contained in a heart-shaped box, although after being destroyed in the French Revolution it’s now just a replacement. Like the five Rennes hearts, these heart burials all demonstrate a sentimental attachment to our life-sustaining organ, as well as reflect the symbolic visuals for its romance and power that have endured over time.