Obese yet malnourished toddler mummy sheds light on life in 17th century aristocratic Austria

Photograph of mummy's face
Detail of the mummy’s face shrouded in the silk hood. Credit: Andreas et al. (2022)

In a creepy discovery published just in time for Halloween (or, alternatively, Children’s Week…), a collaboration of German scientists have performed a ‘virtual autopsy’ on a mummified toddler’s body, found in a 17th century Austrian crypt.

Buried in a wooden coffin that was slightly too small and deformed the skull, the young child’s body appeared to be both obese and malnourished. Researchers say the findings might provide a rare insight into historical Austrian aristocratic society.

Computerised Tomography (CT) 3D reconstruction of the mummy’s head, showing deformation of the skull bones. Credit: Andreas et al. (2022)

By using CT scanning, scientists were able to perform a ‘virtual autopsy’ on the mummy which was naturally mummified in the conditions of the crypt. Well-preserved soft tissue showed the child was a boy, overweight for his age, and radiocarbon dating suggests a date of death between 1550 and 1635 CE.

By examining the formation and length of the body’s bones, plus evidence of tooth eruption, the researchers were able to estimate that the child was about one year old when he died. The bones also showed that despite being well-fed, the boy was malnourished, with his malformed ribs displaying signs of rachitic rosary. This condition presents in a pattern of prominent bony knobs at points where the rib joins cartilage and results from diseases associated with specific vitamin deficiencies such as rickets (vitamin D) and scurvy (vitamin C).

Mikroman6. Getty
Old photograph showing characteristic bone deformation of child with rickets. Credit: mikroman6/Getty Images

Vitamin D is found in foods like salmon, tuna, mackerel and beef liver and egg yolks, but we typically only get around 10% of our required Vitamin D from our diets – the rest is made by our bodies when exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) from the sun.

“The combination of obesity along with a severe vitamin-deficiency can only be explained by a generally ‘good’ nutritional status along with an almost complete lack of sunlight exposure,” said Dr Andreas Nerlich of the Academic Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen and lead researcher.

The child appears to have died from pneumonia, judging by the evidence of inflammation in the lungs. Rickets is known to make children more vulnerable to pneumonia, suggesting that, sadly, not only was the child malnourished, but that this condition may have also led to his untimely demise.

“We have to reconsider the living conditions of high aristocratic infants of previous populations,” said Nerlich.

Read more: Mummified Medieval child died of Hep B, not smallpox

Relatively little is known about aristocratic childhood in the late Renaissance period, so these mummified remains give key insights into life in Europe of a period generally known for its fervent creativity and intellectual development.

“This is only one case,” said Nerlich, “but as we know that the early infant death rates generally were very high at that time, our observations may have considerable impact in the over-all life reconstruction of infants even in higher social classes.”

Count ernst rudinger von starhemberg
Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg (1638 – 1701) was the army commander of Vienna during the second siege of Vienna in 1683, imperial general during the Great Turkish War and President of the Hofkriegsrat. Credikt: ZU_09/Getty Images

To understand more about this period, researchers scoured historical records of the crypt and the family to whom the crypt belonged. Curiously, the child was buried in a simple, unmarked, wooden coffin, although he was dressed in an expensive silk hooded coat. The unmarked coffin appeared to have been slightly too small for the body such that the skull became deformed and was the only infant buried amongst the identifiable adult metal coffins in the crypt.

Historical records of renovations on the crypt confirmed the radiocarbon dating, indicating the child was likely buried sometime after 1600 CE.

The crypt belonged to the Counts of Starhemberg and traditionally was kept exclusively for the burial of heirs to their titles, and their wives, making the body likely to be that of the first-born (and only) son, Reichard Wilhelm, of Count Starhemberg.

“We have no data on the fate of other infants of the family,” Nerlich said, regarding the unique burial. “According to our data, the infant was most probably [the count’s] first-born son after erection of the family crypt, so special care may have been applied.”

Please login to favourite this article.