A Fragrant Grave: Revealing the mummified remains of a 17th-century bishop

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Bishop Winstrup ©Gunnar MenanderIn life, Bishop Peder Winstrup was a renowned theologian, chaplain to the king, and founding father of Lund University. In death, he has proved no less remarkable. Palaeoecologist Per Lagerås reveals the secrets the bishop took to his grave.

Bishop Peder Winstrup died in December 1679, aged 74, and was buried beneath Lund Cathedral. When, in 2014, it was decided that his coffin should be removed from the crypt, a team of archaeologists took the opportunity to look inside. What they discovered surprised everyone: his clothes, his skin, and his hair were so perfectly preserved that he looked almost as if he were sleeping rather than having been dead for more than three centuries. But another shock awaited the team: the bishop was not alone. Secreted at his feet was the tiny body of a human foetus, probably a still-born baby. Winstrup and the baby lay on a bed of well-preserved plants, its pillows stuffed with herbs. Could these be the reason the remains looked so fresh? An interdisciplinary research team, directed by Per Karsten, Historical Museum at Lund University, was rapidly assembled to investigate.

A perfumed bed of herbs

The bishop’s head rested on a large fluffy silk pillow stuffed with soft aromatic catkins of hop. It also included grain – mostly oats, with some barley and rye – but very little straw, as well as small quantities of the flowers and seeds of lavender, hyssop, lemon balm, and dill. We also found berries and needles of juniper, leaves of common box, and single seeds of several other species.

Though botanical analysis of Christian graves is rare, hops are easily recognisable and have been found in several graves in the past. It was not uncommon in 17th- and 18th-century northern Europe to put a pillow of hops in a coffin, or even a simple bed of hops along the bottom.

Beneath the pillow, we discovered a second, smaller, one. It was stuffed entirely with once strongly aromatic herbs, in particular lavender, hyssop, and lemon balm, as well as flowers of dwarf everlast (Helichrysum arenarium), which has a characteristic curry-like smell when dried. Like the hop pillow, this one also included small amounts of juniper, dill, common box, and other plants. Under the pillow were wooden shavings, probably from the construction of the coffin – the tradition of putting the shavings inside a coffin continued into the 20th century.

The mattress padding, as with the upper pillow, was mostly hops with some grain, and though soft it was very thin – certainly not comfortable for a living person.

Beneath the mattress and the pillows was a bed of rather coarse plant material, which lined the bottom of the coffin. This comprised the stems of large herbs, mostly absinthium (wormwood) – an aromatic herb that is well-known today as a spirit flavour – as well as southernwood, a close relative of absinthium but with more of a lemony fragrance.

The plants for the bishop’s burial were clearly deliberately chosen for their strong scent. However, many were in bloom when picked, and since Winstrup died in December, they must have been dried and devoid of much of their former beauty by the time of the funeral. But they would still have been fragrant, suggesting that they were put in the coffin to add a pleasant smell to the funeral, or simply to disguise the stench of the dead body. Poor people were usually buried within a few days, but a high-society funeral with dignitaries coming from far afield took longer to arrange – and we know from historical sources that Winstrup’s funeral took place more than a month after his death, so aromatic herbs would have been essential.

©Gunnar MenanderPreservative qualities

Though the body had not been embalmed – a CT scan revealed that the internal organs were not removed – the body was mummified and very well preserved. This was probably a result of the cold, dry climatic conditions inside the crypt, but the herbs may also have played a role. Many of the identified species have preservative, antiseptic, or insect-repelling properties, and such effects were already known in the 17th century. Hops are antiseptic, and were used as a preservative in beer as well as in food, whereas lavender, absinthium, and southernwood were used in clothes and beds to repel moths, lice, and bedbugs. The ability of hops and southernwood to slow down decomposition of meat is specifically mentioned by some 17th- and 18th-century writers, and these plants were also used during embalming procedures to stuff bodies – usually royalty.

The plants were chosen, therefore, both to disguise the stench and to preserve the body – though, as the bishop’s body was not intended for display, perhaps the aim was simply to keep him reasonably fresh until the day of the funeral.

However, the plants may also have had symbolic meanings. It is interesting to note that many of the species were well known at the time for their sedative and calming properties, and are still used today in modern medicine for similar purposes: hops have a soothing effect (not only through beer), and hops placed in pillows are supposed to induce good sleep. Lavender has similar properties, and lemon balm is still used in alternative medicine as a calmative. These herbs were intended to guarantee the bishop a deep and dreamless sleep after death – and perhaps to stop him haunting those he left behind.

Glimpsing a bishop’s garden© Per Lagerås

Gardens in the 17th century were used for growing vegetables, spices, and medicine. A large household such as Winstrup’s would also have had hops, fruit trees, and several other useful plants. As many of the specimens we found in his coffin – hops, lavender, hyssop, lemon balm, dill, common box, and possibly also dwarf everlast – were typical of the kinds of plants grown for people of the bishop’s status, it seems probable that they came from his own garden.

As well as herbs intentionally placed in the coffin, there were also single seeds and the remains of several other plants, further enriching our picture of the bishop’s garden: a cherry kernel, hazelnuts (strange to find in a mattress), linseed and flax seed-capsules, and buckwheat and charlock mustard seeds. We also recovered single seeds of several medicinal plants, including henbane, black nightshade, danewort, hemp, common bugloss, cornflower, and pot marigold.

Put together, we get a glimpse of a garden that contained many useful plants, some indigenous, some introduced into Sweden during the preceding centuries. It was well stocked with medicinal plants – the household’s personal pharmacy – familiar to a well-educated person like Winstrup. And it seems he had need of them: analysis of his remains reveal that, towards the end of his life, he suffered from several ailments, including osteoarthritis and gallstones.

Bishop Peder Winstrup has now been returned to Lund Cathedral. However, tissue samples were taken before his reburial, and these will be the subject of further exciting research. Only a fraction of the plant material has been examined so far, but the rest is securely stored for future studies. The wonderfully well-preserved plant material has great potential, not least for genetic studies of early cultivars.

So this 350-year-old burial of an eminent bishop is a significant discovery: not only does it contain a remarkably well-preserved body – or, indeed, two bodies – but also offers us a glimpse into a 17th-century garden.

Per Lagerås, National Historical Museums, Sweden

Images:  ©Gunnar Menander;  ©Per Lagerås

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