Head's origin is researchers' royal headache
Doubt — and a reportedly royal severed head — haunts a murky corner of forensic science these days, as researchers squabble over an unearthed packet of mummified remains thought to have belonged to King Henry IV of France.
The mystery has produced a frightful case of regret among two researchers who were part of the first team to investigate the purportedly royal noggin. Last week, French pathologist Geoffroy Lorin de la Grandmaison and Leslie Eisenberg, an American forensic anthropologist, wrote to the British Medical Journal and urged the retraction of the 2010 study that first identified the disembodied head as belonging to Henry.
At the heart of the macabre drama is an embalmed head with several vertebrae still attached. The remains were found in 1919 in the Royal Basilica of St. Denis outside Paris and reportedly taken undetected by a civil servant. Reappearing almost a century later, the specimen still had its soft tissue and organs intact, right down to the open mouth and partially closed eyes.
On the basis of CT imaging and digital facial reconstruction, French medical examiner and forensic osteo-archaeologist Philippe Charlier and a multidisciplinary team — including Eisenberg and Lorin de la Grandmaison — in 2010 identified the head as that of the charming and rakish monarch known variously as “the Green Gallant” and “Good King Henry.”
Even a mushroom-like growth on his nose and evidence of a pierced right ear seemed to point to King Henry IV. Although beloved by most of his people, the Bourbon monarch was assassinated in 1610 after 21 years on the throne.
But researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium were not so sure the head belonged to Good King Henry.
Obtaining a sample of the mummified tissue, they conducted a genetic analysis and compared it with DNA samples given by three male descendants of the House of Bourbon.
The findings were on top of an earlier dismissal by French historian Philippe Delorme. Among other things, Delorme noted that the head bore no sign of craniotomy, as would be typical for a member of the royal family at that time. In such an esteemed person, craniotomy incisions would have been made in life (as a treatment for infection, head trauma and other ills) and in death (as a means to harvest “rondels,” diskettes of bony tissue that were subsequently worn around the neck as an amulet).