The 13th-century cadaver, says Philippe Charlier, actually smells good. That’s because its veins have been filled with a mixture of mercury and beeswax, preserving the body. “Also it was smoked, like salmon or like pork,” he says. So even after 800 years, it’s in pretty good shape.
Charlier is a physician and forensic scientist at the University Hospital Richard Poincaré in France. He spends most of his time performing modern autopsies there, but he has also made a name for himself in France analyzing the bodies—and body parts—of European historical figures. He’s examined the head of Henry IV, the hair and bones of French noblewoman Diane de Poitiers, and bone fragments, accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as relics of Joan of Arc, that Charlier showed were faked.
Most recently, Charlier has analyzed an autopsied medieval cadaver, to learn about autopsy during the time period. He’s also analyzed the powdered remains of Richard the Lionheart’s heart, which was embalmed separately from the rest of his body and kept in the church of Notre Dame in Rouen, France.
“I’m a historian of medicine,” Charlier says, but adds that his main aim is to develop autopsy techniques. He trains his techniques on historical cadavers because, he says, “it’s more, I think, complex and more interesting” than modern cadavers donated to science.
Charlier is something of a celebrity in France, where reporters sometimes call him the “Indiana Jones of the graveyards.” He popularizes his field through books, radio and television. In a New York Times profile, he said he got interested in historical bodies after taking part in a 5th- to 8th-century archeological dig as a child. Over the past several years, he’s led forensic tests of famous and ordinary people throughout European history.