Analysis of Brahe body may take a year
Scientists return astronomer's corpse to crypt after exhumation
Posted: November 24, 2010
Týn Church - Samples from crypt to be studied for clues
A complete analysis resulting from the Nov. 15 exhumation of famed 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe's body will take up to a year, but the project has already produced some early surprises.
The bodies of Brahe, whose cause of death has been the topic of speculation for centuries, and his wife were removed from a crypt in the Church of Our Lady Before Týn on Prague's Old Town Square. Over a period of three days, a team of Czech and Danish researchers drew hair and bone samples that they hope will answer some of questions surrounding the death of Brahe, considered by many as one of the greatest astronomers of his time and a leading figure in Emperor Rudolf II's court in Prague.
Preliminary results were presented at a Nov. 19 press conference in Prague.
"We expected we would find the remains of Tycho Brahe and his wife in the grave. But after we opened it, we found remains of several other persons as well, which meant the team's archeologists had to keep working until last night to find out more about the identity of those bodies," said Petr Velemínský, head of the National Museum's anthropological depository. "We found remains of eight other individuals, five of whom were children, and that was certainly a surprise."
Researchers plan to publish a report in December. However, it will mostly sum up the research performed so far rather than provide answers to the bigger mystery: the official cause of Brahe's death. Some say it was a burst bladder, possibly a result from overindulging in drink at a banquet, but others allege murder at the hands of his former scientific partner, the mathematician Johannes Kepler.
The press conference took place the day after the corpse was returned to the grave in Týn Church, where a special mass was held. Danish team leader Jens Vellev said that while the causes of Brahe's death are certainly the principle subject of public fascination, the team of scientists plans to dig deeper.
"There have been a lot of rumors surrounding his death. But we're not just looking at that, but also for information on how he lived his day-to-day life," Vellev said. "The beard and bone samples will reveal what medicine Brahe was taking. If we are lucky, we will know more by next year."
Conspiracy theorists claim a jealous Kepler poisoned Brahe before buying the astronomer's research from his unsuspecting widow and using it for his own ends. The story goes that Kepler used mercury to kill his former collaborator, but more skeptical voices say the tale is unlikely, calling the traces of mercury previously found in Brahe's corpse during an earlier exhumation a sign of nothing more than his penchant for alchemy, a common hobby of scientists at the time who sought to convert various elements into gold.
"When we examine the hair samples in Sweden and in Prague, and we have about 8 centimeters of his beard, we will be able to find information on what substances he administered in the last three months of his life," Vellev said. "And the bone samples will give us even further-reaching information on the last 15 years of his life."
It's doubtful an analysis of the samples will provide a definitive answer to the mystery surrounding Brahe's death, Vellev said, but whatever the result, the public can expect to hear something more next year.
Sarah Borufka can be reached at
Tags: brahe, exhumation, tyn church, mercury, astronomer, tyco brahe, prague, scientist, old town, mystery, poison, death, cause of death, bones, church of our lady before tyn, danish, denmark, murder.