13th century head reveals medieval science was more advanced than we thought

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New analysis of the oldest-known preserved human dissection in Europe has revealed that its preparation was surprisingly advanced.

This 13th century male anatomical specimen, with skullcap and brain removed, is the oldest known in Europe – image by Archives of Medical Science

Radiocarbon dating has put the age of the man’s body, whose identity is unknown, between 1200 – 1280 AD, considered a primitive era in the history of European science.  Yet the arteries of the specimen, consisting of head and shoulders with the top of the skull and brain removed, were filled with a ‘metal wax’ compound that helped preserve the body.  This mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury would also have added colour to the circulatory system, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint.

Renowned French forensic scientist, Dr Philippe Charlier, who led the analysis of the mummified head, was surprised at the level of anatomical expertise with which it had been prepared.  He said:  “It’s state-of-the-art.  I suppose that the preparator did not do this just one time, but several times, to be so good at this.”

Historians in the past generally viewed the 1,000 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance as a period of barbarianism and ignorance, particularly in the fields of science and medicine – but modern historians have revised this view.

Historian James Hannam said: “There was considerable scientific progress in the later Middle Ages, in particular from the 13th century onward.”  He explained that these advancements were forgotten by academics in the 16th and 17th centuries when it became an “intellectual fad” to credit classical sources from ancient Greece and Rome rather than the scientists of the Middle Ages.

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