The story of the mummified lungs of the Merovingian queen Arnegonda

In 1959, numerous medieval sarcophagi were discovered in the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris, the burial place for centuries of the kings of France.

The person in charge of the Parisian archaeological works was, at that time, Michel Fleury, one of the most outstanding French specialists. Opening one of the sarcophagi, he noticed something unusual, which made its contents truly special.

Inside, along with the usual remains of bone, tissue, and jewelry, was something else, what appeared to be a mummified organ. Sure enough, it was a lung, which had been preserved in a way that the researchers could not explain at the time.

The character buried there could be identified thanks to the dress and the jewelry that accompanied him. Specifically, one of the rings contained the inscription Arnegundis surrounding the central monogram regina. It was Queen Arnegonda, wife of the Merovingian King Clotario I, who lived between approximately 515 and 573.

Clotario came to have several wives at the same time, so Arnegonda shared it, among others, with her own sister Ingonda who had previously married the king.

It will also be the mother of Chilperico I, who became King of Neustria on the death of his father. However, she Arnegonda was not of Merovingian blood, which made the DNA analysis carried out in 2006 by Josh Bernstein useless to check if she had characteristics oriental, in line with the commotion caused by the book The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, in which it is stated that the Merovingians descended from Jesus. She was a German princess from Thuringia, daughter of King Baderick.

The Thuringians had invaded Gaul along with the Huns, with whom they had allied, creating their own kingdom. They would be defeated precisely by Clotario I in the year 531 and his kingdom incorporated by the Merovingians into that of the Franks. More or less on that same date, Arnegonda’s marriage to Clotario would take place.

The analysis of her remains showed that she had some type of physical disability, and could have suffered from poliomyelitis at a very young age, which would support the legend that Clotario took her as his wife at the request of her sister Ingonda, since otherwise she would not have found a husband. .

The mystery of his mummified lung has given rise to different theories over the last few decades. Had it been mummified naturally or had it been embalmed on purpose?

Belt plates / photo Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers led by bio-anthropologist Raffaella Bianucci, from the University of Turin, came up with the solution in 2016, in which a copper belt found along with the remains plays an important role.

The analyzes revealed unusual concentrations of copper ions on the surface of the lung tissue, and of copper oxide as well as small amounts of benzoic acid (now used in preserving canned goods) and similar compounds inside the organ.

These substances are of natural origin and very similar to those found in some Egyptian mummies. Which, according to the investigators, confirms the theory that Arnegonda was subjected to an oral injection of fluids with components of aromatic plants or spices.

Since Arnegonda was wearing the aforementioned belt at her waist, the copper oxide found in her lungs would come from it. And the preservative properties of copper together with the treatment with spices would have allowed the mummification of the lung, since it was there where the liquid accumulated. That is why it is the only organ that was preserved.

It is known that the Merovingians embalmed their monarchs following a procedure that they had learned from the Romans, who in turn had obtained it from the Egyptians. According to Bianucci, it is clear that Merovingian mummification was a much less sophisticated process, based mainly on the use of oils, spices, and aromatic plants such as thyme, myrrh, or aloe.

Queen Arnegonda is like that, one of the few medieval characters for whom we have historical documentation through sources, physical remains, and objects.


Seeker / Archeology News / A Brief History of the Merovingians (Ernest Bendriss) / Merovingian Queens / Wikipedia