Researchers learn about Renaissance childhood from 1600s mummified toddler

The naturally mummified body of the infant comes from the family crypt of the Counts of Starhemberg, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Austria.

 Starhemberg ruins, Austria (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Starhemberg ruins, Austria
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A team of scientists based in Germany were able to shed new light on childhood during the Renaissance by examining a 17th century child mummy in a peer-reviewed study published in Frontiers in Medicine, using cutting-edge science alongside historical records.

The team, led by Dr Andreas Nerlich of the Academic Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen, carried out a virtual autopsy, radiocarbon testing, and examined family records along with key material clues from the crypt, to try to understand who the child was and what his short life looked like.

“This is only one case,” said Nerlich, lead author of the paper. “But as we know that the early infant death rates generally were very high at that time, our observations may have considerable impact in the over-all life reconstruction of infants even in higher social classes.”

The naturally mummified body of the infant comes from the family crypt of the Counts of Starhemberg, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Austria, where the conditions allowed for natural mummification, preserving soft tissue that contained critical information about his life and death.

Curiously, this was the only unidentified body in the crypt, buried in an unmarked wooden coffin instead of the elaborate metal coffins reserved for the other members of the family.

The church where the crypt was located, built in 1441 CE, was extended in 1499 CE by adding a memorial chapel with a crypt underneath, accommodating the burials of numerous members of the Starhemberg family in beautifully decorated metal coffins with inscriptions, and one small wooden coffin without an indication of its content or origin.

During some restoration work on the crypt, the opportunity was taken to open the infant's coffin and a macroscopic investigation was undertaken. The body underwent anthropological measurements as far as possible and, subsequently, submitted to a whole-body CT scan.

Radiocarbon dating of a skin sample suggested he was buried between 1550-1635 CE, while historical records of the crypt’s management indicated that his burial probably took place after the crypt’s renovation around 1600 CE. He was the only infant buried in the crypt.

“We have no data on the fate of other infants of the family,” Nerlich said regarding the unique burial. “According to our data, the infant was most probably [the count’s] first-born son after erection of the family crypt, so special care may have been applied.”

This meant that there was only one likely candidate for the little boy in the silk coat: Reichard Wilhelm, the first son of Erasmus der Jüngere, whose grieving family buried him alongside his grandfather and namesake Reichard von Starhemberg.

Well fed, but not well nourished

Nerlich and his team measured bone lengths and looked at tooth eruption and the formation of long bones during the virtual autopsy and determined that the child was approximately a year old when he died.

The soft tissue showed that the child was a boy and overweight for his age, raising the assumption that he was well taken care of – but the infants bones told a different story.

The child’s ribs had become malformed in the pattern called a rachitic rosary, which is usually seen in severe rickets or scurvy. Although he received enough food to put on weight, he was still malnourished. While the typical bowing of the bones seen in rickets was absent, this may have been because he did not walk or crawl.

Since the virtual autopsy revealed that he had inflammation of the lungs characteristic of pneumonia, and children with rickets are more vulnerable to pneumonia, this nutritional deficiency may even have contributed to his early death.

“The combination of obesity along with a severe vitamin-deficiency can only be explained by a generally ‘good’ nutritional status along with an almost complete lack of sunlight exposure,” said Nerlich. “We have to reconsider the living conditions of high aristocratic infants of previous populations.”

Rickets is the consequence of a lack of vitamin D, a vitamin that is first intestinally processed from pro-precursors, then further modified in the skin under the non-enzymatic action of sunlight to precursors and then further modified in the kidney to the active vitamin.

The presence of sufficient vitamin D is required to mineralize the non-mineralized osteoid bone matrix into typical bone. Therefore, any interference of this pathway may result in a lack of vitamin D, and result in rickets in the growing skeleton.