Archaeologists uncover Europe's oldest preserved human dissection

The recent discovery of a well-preserved dissected head dating back to the 1200s has shown that the middle ages weren't as anti-science as many scholars would have us believe. While it looks pretty horrific, this mummified head was a medieval science project — a dissection that wasn't simply meant to be gawked at and tossed away. Given its remarkably well preserved state, scientists suspect that it was used for ongoing medical education.

Whoever preserved this head knew what they were doing. The veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury — compounds that preserved the body, while also giving the circulatory system some color (cinnabar mercury has a red tint).

Writing in LiveScience, Stephanie Pappas reports:

The gruesome specimen, now in a private collection, consists of a human head and shoulders with the top of the skull and brain removed. Rodent nibbles and insect larvae trails mar the face. The arteries are filled with a red "metal wax" compound that helped preserve the body.

The preparation of the specimen was surprisingly advanced. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the body between A.D. 1200 and A.D.1280, an era once considered part of Europe's anti-scientific "Dark Ages." In fact, said study researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R. Poincare in France, the new specimen suggests surprising anatomical expertise during this time period.

"It's state-of-the-art," Charlier told LiveScience. "I suppose that the preparator did not do this just one time, but several times, to be so good at this."

Be sure to read Pappas's entire article, as she reviews the fascinating history of Medieval Era science and how it fared during this challenging period in human history.

Image via Archives of Medical Science.