July 26, 2011

Cervantes, Cerveza y Cirrhosis

The forensic archaeologists are at it again!  This time, some Spanish ones want to dig up Cervantes.  Their goals are: 1) to "reconstruct the face of a man only know from a picture... painted some 20 years after his death"; and 2) figure out if he did indeed die of cirrhosis of the liver, according to historian Fernando Prado.

Cervantes de La Mancha (credit)
No one's quite sure where Cervantes' remains are buried, although they're most likely in a convent in Madrid.  If they do find remains that match his age-at-death and sex, though, archaeologists think that it will be easy to identify Cervantes, since "He received a blast from a harquebus in the chest and another wound that left him unable to use one hand," during a naval battle in 1571, according to Prado.  It does seem reasonable that these wounds could identify Cervantes, but it sounds like they'll have to dig up the entire convent to find the bones.  Prado hopes the work will be carried out by 2016.

I feel like a broken record, but facial reconstruction to see the "true face" of someone who died hundreds of years ago is just absurd (q.v. Mona Lisa and Shakespeare [who, incidentally, was Cervantes' contemporary]). As far as Cervantes' love for the cerveza, alcoholism does seem to predispose people to bone degeneration, and longstanding liver disease like cirrhosis could very well have affected the quality of his bone.  But osteoporosis and osteopenia are certainly not pathognomonic for cirrhosis or alcoholism and could be related to a variety of things, like vitamin D deficiency (rickets/osteomalacia).  There's no way to say for sure that Cervantes died from liver disease, even if they find a perfect skeleton - and the chances of that happening (especially if he had low bone density!) are fairly low.

Well, I could keep writing about how silly it is to do forensic reconstructions of 400-year-old people, or I could jump on the "Digging Up Celebrities" bandwagon.  All the cool kids are doing it, after all, and they're getting far more press than my average-Julii from Rome.  Now it's just a matter of digging up all of Rome to find an emperor...

* Hat tip to @TLockyer for the link!

4 comments:

Mark Patton said...

It's one thing to do a facial reconstruction (however imperfect) on a skeleton dug up in the normal course of archaeological excavations. It's quite another to mount a large scale excavation just in order to do so (and to look at the pathology of a named individual). Whatever happened to the idea of a coherrent research strategy?

Kristina Killgrove said...

Exactly. The piece in the Telegraph says that they will reconstruct "exactly how he looked." 'cause there are so many exacts in archaeology.

Fins said...

I remember, as a first-year grad student in Nautical Archaeology, being taught the history of archaeology as though focus on major figures was an outdated paradigm and no real archaeologists were interested in that anymore. I also remember being taught you had to have a good research question to get a PERMIT, let alone funding. Disillusionment is sad...

josh said...

nice post

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