Baby Found Hidden in Coffin of Mummified Swedish Bishop - HISTORY

History Stories

A tale from the crypt in the Swedish city of Lund has taken a bizarre turn.

Last year Lund University researchers unearthed the coffin of Lutheran Bishop Peder Winstrup from the crypt of the city’s cathedral, where he was buried several weeks after passing away at the age of 74 in December 1679. When the researchers opened the coffin, they were astonished to find one of the best-preserved human bodies ever found from the 1600s. Winstrup’s bearded face still closely resembled that of his 17th-century portrait, and his velvet cape, leather gloves and other clothing were perfectly preserved.

Credit: Gunnar Menander

Credit: Gunnar Menander

“It’s very, very rare to find bodies from the 16th and 17th centuries that you can still recognize the people,” said Per Karsten, director of the Lund University Historical Museum, in a video released by the university. “His face is still there. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Researchers were also surprised to find Winstrup’s internal organs still in place. Rather than being traditionally embalmed with the organs removed, Winstrup’s body simply dried out naturally. The timing of the bishop’s death and burial in the winter, a long sickness that thinned his frame, the cool conditions in the cathedral’s crypt and the plant material that lined his coffin all contributed to preserving his body. “Winstrup’s mummy is one of the best-preserved bodies from Europe in the 1600s, with an information potential well in line with that offered by Ötzi the ice man or Egyptian mummies,” Karsten said.

Winstrup was one of the most prominent historical figures in 17th-century Scandinavia. Born in Copenhagen, he served as a royal chaplain to Denmark’s King Christian IV before being appointed the Lutheran Bishop of Lund in 1638 and presiding over Scania, a region that switched from Danish to Swedish control during his tenure. The theologian was the founding father of Lund University—having convinced the Swedish king to start the institution in 1666—and an architect, printer, book collector and skilled scientist. “He was a renaissance man in its purest sense,” Karsten said.

Bishop Peder Winstrup

Bishop Peder Winstrup

With his mummified body in such a pristine condition, the former physics professor was again put into the service of science more than three centuries after his death. “His remains constitute a unique archive of medical history on the living conditions and health of people living in the 1600s,” Karsten said. So in a quest to better understand the everyday lives of Lund’s 17th-century citizens, researchers performed a CT scan on Winstrup’s remains last December.

What Karsten and his colleagues found a few minutes into the scan, however, shocked them: Winstrup was not alone in his coffin.

Concealed underneath the bishop’s feet and buried in the deep mattress of juniper and wormwood on which his body rested was the tiny body of a premature baby. Only five or six months into its gestation period, the baby was apparently stillborn or the result of a miscarriage.

Why the baby was hidden in the coffin remains unknown. Karsten said that while the bishop could be related to the baby, “I think it’s more appropriate to think that he’s been concealed by some other members of the bishop’s staff when organizing his funeral.” One possibility is that because the child had not been baptized, someone surreptitiously placed it in the coffin of a notable bishop as a way to ensure its proper Christian burial. “A fetus could never be baptized,” Karsten told CBC Radio. “The only way of securing the child’s spiritual future was to hide it away in coffins or in cemeteries or in church walls.”

sweden, bishop, mummy

Credit: Gunnar Menander

While the CT scan revealed this unexpected mystery, it did impart some definitive information about Winstrup. Researchers have determined that he suffered from a variety of ailments including gout and arthritis. Plaque found clogging his arteries and the presence of stones on his gallbladder revealed that the bishop consumed a diet of fatty foods. The decay of Winstrup’s remaining teeth indicated that his wealth provided him with access to sugar. The calcification discovered in the bishop’s lungs were signs of both tuberculosis and pneumonia, and the dried fluid and mucus found in the body’s sinuses offered clues that Winstrup had been bedridden for months before he died.

Researchers will perform DNA tests on the bishop and the baby in September to determine if they are related. Even if they are not, plans remain to rebury the two bodies together.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.