Digging up Brahe
A portrait of Brahe in 1598, from the royal library in Copenhagen.
May 12, 2010

Digging up Brahe

A search for clues to the famous astronomer’s death and life

If everything goes according to plan, sometime in November a group of about a dozen Czech and Danish scientists will descend on the Church of Our Lady Before Týn on Old Town Square. Soon thereafter, a man who has been dead for more than 400 years will say hello to the 21st century.

Tycho Brahe was the greatest astronomer of his time, a leading light in the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. But, at this point, it’s safe to say he is more famous in death than he ever was in life – in science, for his precise observations of the heavens, and in popular culture, for the mysterious manner of his death.

After a royal banquet in 1601, Brahe developed a urinary problem that grew steadily worse until he died 11 days later. It’s possible he suffered from a urinary infection or kidney failure. But ever since mercury was discovered in samples of his beard taken during a 1901 exhumation, theories of mercury poisoning have grown in frequency and popularity. Brahe was also an alchemist, so he handled mercury frequently and may even have taken it as medicine. There have been theories of foul play as well, one suggesting that Brahe was deliberately poisoned by his colleague Johannes Kepler.

This, however, is not what is foremost in the mind of the scientist leading the November exhumation.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to answer the question of how he died,” said Jens Vellev, a medieval and Renaissance archaeologist from the University of Aarhus in eastern Denmark. “I think not. I’m more interested in how he lived.”

Vellev is a serious Brahe scholar for whom the exhumation is only one part of a much larger tapestry. He has spent a great deal of time on Hven, the Scandinavian island where Brahe had a grand residence and operated an observatory and paper mill before he accepted Rudolf’s invitation to relocate to Prague in 1599. Ongoing excavation continues to reveal more about Brahe’s life and work on Hven, where Vellev hopes one day to reconstruct the residence and observatory.

Next year, Vellev plans to publish a replica of Mechanica, the famous manual Brahe wrote explaining how the many astronomical instruments that he invented worked. At one point, Vellev ran down the trail of a copy that made its way to China via a Jesuit missionary, and got a close look at a number of Brahe’s instruments that the Chinese had made, which are still in existence in Beijing.

But Vellev’s focus at the moment is on securing all the necessary permits to open Brahe’s grave, which is why he was in Prague last week. “We don’t absolutely have final permission, but we are very close,” he said in an interview at his Wenceslas Square hotel. Vellev also spent some time visiting the Nuclear Physics Institute, where some of the analyses of Brahe’s bones and hair will be done.

Asked what he expects to find when he opens Brahe’s grave, Vellev was candid: “We don’t know.” The 1901 exhumation was a rush job, he said. “They opened it to make sure he was there, took a quick look at the bones, and put them right back.” Moreover, fragments of the coffin and swatches of clothing were apparently given away to Danish tourists passing through the church.

This time, the approach will be much more scientific.

“We will be doing very specialized analyses of his hair and bones for the first time,” Vellev said. “We’ll be looking not just for mercury, but for elements like calcium and magnesium. We hope to learn not only how he died, but how he lived – what he ate, what medicines he took, if he had a serious disease as a child.”

Vellev also hopes to get enough material to reconstruct the fabulous silk garment that Brahe was buried in. “It’s not the most important thing, but it is a personal interest of mine,” he said.

Does he have a favorite theory of how Brahe died?

“No,” he said emphatically. “A lot has been written about this mercury, but it’s all speculation. There’s not enough information to have a good theory. I hope with our work, we can get more.”

And his personal goal for the exhumation?

“I just hope to get a better picture of Tycho Brahe’s life, and life during that time,” he said. “As an archaeologist, if you exhume an anonymous person, it’s not so interesting. But if you can combine an exhumation with written sources, you can get much closer to your subject.”

Whatever Vellev and his colleagues find, it will take a year or two to analyze it properly, with no guarantee what the results will show. So the mystery of Brahe’s death will linger, perhaps indefinitely. But his life, like the stars he studied night after night, will almost certainly come into much sharper focus.

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