Healthy Lifestyle

From mummy to name: Reichard Wilhelm, the forgotten infant of the Starhemberg family

Approximately 400 years ago, in Austria, a baby boy was wrapped in a beautiful silk coat, placed in an unlabeled wooden coffin, and sealed in a family crypt. Researchers studying this mummy have now identified the child as Reichard Wilhelm, who belonged to the elite Starhemberg family of Upper Austria. Despite being well-fed, the child showed signs of rickets, a condition caused by a lack of vitamin D, which is found in certain foods and is produced by the body when exposed to sunlight. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

According to Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at Munich Clinic Bogenhausen in Germany, the team was cautious in their conclusions because they had only one case. However, the researchers believe that other infants may have suffered from a similar lack of sunlight exposure and vitamin deficiency. Nerlich and his colleagues examined the child’s mummy during restoration at the family crypt of the Counts of Starhemberg in Hellmonsödt, a village nine miles outside of Linz, Austria.

The crypt was first built around 1500 and was expanded and renovated around 1600. Firstborn sons of the family and sometimes their wives were interred there. The boy, who was less than two feet tall, was surprisingly well-preserved. His body was swaddled in a hooded coat with his left hand—fingernails intact—resting on his belly. His skull is slightly deformed from being placed in the too small coffin, and his mouth is frozen in an eternal pout.

The researchers took a tiny skin sample for radiocarbon dating and used computed tomography to virtually autopsy the mummy. Their results suggest that the child was well-fed, perhaps even obese, with thick fat on his abdomen and thighs. The fat had reacted with moisture to create a waxy substance called adipocere, which can protect a body from decay. The child’s bones and teeth suggest that he was between 10 and 18 months old when he died.

The boy’s rib bones were studded with knobs, and the ends of his long bones were slightly enlarged, both signs of rickets. This disorder softens the bones and causes the overgrowth of cartilage at the joints. The root of the problem is a lack of vitamin D, which the body requires to metabolize calcium and build strong bones. The boy’s diet was clearly calorie-rich, given his ample fat tissue, but he may have still been lacking necessary nutrients, the authors wrote in their new paper.

The researchers speculated that the boy may have lived a sheltered existence and been kept from the sun to keep his skin pale, as was often fashionable among aristocrats in this era in Europe. The resulting rickets may have contributed to the child’s death, as his lung tissue showed signs of pneumonia, which rickets can predispose children to.

Radiocarbon dating, along with the age of the crypt, suggests the boy most likely died between 1550 and 1635. In that time frame, there were only three firstborn sons in the Starhemberg family, and only one had died after the crypt renovation. That was Reichard, the first son of Erasmus the Younger and the grandson of Reichard von Starhemberg, the first member of the family interred in the renovated crypt. According to family records, baby Reichard died in 1626.

Young Reichard’s remains are an unusual discovery, as there are not many baby mummies from Europe. Bob Genheimer, curator of archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, who was not involved in the study, said that the emotional aspects of studying a child can be different from studying adults. “Children are always the victims of premature death, and people seem to be much more protective of them,” he said.

Studying mummies, especially of children, can offer unique insights into the past. For example, the discovery that Reichard suffered from rickets sheds light on the nutritional deficiencies and living conditions of the upper classes in the early modern period. It also highlights the importance of vitamin D and sunlight exposure for human health, a lesson that still resonates today.

As for Reichard’s specific case, his story is a reminder that even the most privileged members of society were not immune to disease and early death. Despite being a member of an elite family, Reichard’s life was cut tragically short by a preventable illness. His mummified body is a poignant reminder of this fact and a testament to the fragility of human life.

While Reichard’s remains are a valuable historical artifact, they also represent the physical remains of a human being who lived and died centuries ago. As such, they deserve to be treated with respect and care. The researchers who studied Reichard took great care to avoid damaging his mummy and to ensure that his remains were returned to the crypt where he was buried.

In conclusion, the discovery of Reichard Wilhelm’s identity and the cause of his death is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the upper classes in early modern Austria. It also underscores the importance of vitamin D and sunlight exposure for human health and the fact that even the most privileged members of society were not immune to disease and premature death. As we continue to study mummies and other historical artifacts, we must always remember to treat them with the respect and care they deserve as physical remains of people who lived and died long ago.

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