Underneath the site of a former medieval convent in the French city of Rennes, a team of archaeologists were hard at work. Slowly, they uncovered secrets that had remained buried for hundreds of years. But when the researchers prized open the lid of a 350-year-old coffin, little could have prepared them for what they found inside.
Located in Brittany in northwest France, Rennes has been a thriving settlement since it was founded by a Gallic tribe in the second century B.C. Over the years, the city has grown, and today it’s home to more than 200,000 inhabitants. However, as Rennes moves into the modern age, its landscape is changing irrevocably.
Just one example of this modernization is the onetime Jacobin convent, a Dominican building initially constructed as far back as 1369. In the convent’s heyday, it acted as an important burial site and was particularly popular with the upper echelons of Rennes society.
Today, however, construction workers are busy transforming the historic convent into a state-of-the-art convention center equipped with auditoriums and exhibition rooms. But before work could begin, archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, or INRAP, were called in to survey the area.
Between 2011 and 2013, a team of archaeologists carried out an excavation where the former Jacobin convent lay. Eventually, moreover, they would uncover some 1,380 burials, mostly dating from the 14th to 18th centuries. However, there was one discovery in particular that has been generating much excitement.
Among the skeletons that littered the site, archaeologists discovered five coffins forged from lead. Unfortunately, one was lodged so tightly under one of the former convent’s walls that it was impossible to remove. But when archaeologists were finally able to remove the casket in 2014, they were amazed by what they found.
As they opened the sealed coffin, researchers expected there to be little of the occupant left inside. However, they were soon confronted with the body of an aristocratic woman who had died more than 350 years ago – and, incredibly, her remains were preserved down to every detail. In fact, even the articles of clothing in which she was buried were intact.
“We saw at once there was not just a well-preserved corpse but a mass of material that was still supple and humid, and shoes,” INRAP archaeologist Rozenn Colleter told The Guardian in 2015. “Because the coffin was completely sealed it had kept everything preserved.”
Taking a closer look, the archaeologists realized that the woman was still wearing all the trappings of a simple, religious life. Among the items were a woolen habit, a linen shirt, a cape, a scarf-like garment known as a chasuble, leg warmers and a pair of cork-soled leather shoes.
Furthermore, a crucifix had been placed in the woman’s clasped hands, and her right arm bore a devotional scapular. Interestingly, too, several coverings – two bonnets, a hood and a shroud – had been placed over her face, obscuring her features.
Yet although the body itself was remarkably well preserved, archaeologists knew they faced a race against time to keep it that way. “We had to move quickly because once the coffin is opened it sets off the decomposition process again after 350 years,” Colleter said. “We had 72 hours to bring the body down to four degrees [39.2 °F] to preserve everything.”
With the woman’s mummified body subsequently safely removed, researchers began conducting tests on the fascinating find. Interestingly, they discovered that she’d been suffering from kidney stones, as well as adhesions on her lungs, when she died. Her heart, moreover, had been removed with surgical precision.
But just who was this mysterious woman? Well, on top of her coffin, archaeologists found a clue: a lead container housing an embalmed heart. That said, the inscription suggested that the heart was not her own. Instead, it appeared to have belonged to a knight named Toussaint de Perrien, who died in 1649.
Armed with this information, researchers were able to identify the mystery woman as Louise de Quengo, de Perrien’s widow. Scientists believe that after the knight’s death, de Quengo was presented with his heart at the convent, where she subsequently spent the rest of her life. Then when she died, the organ was buried alongside her.
Amazingly, too, de Perrien’s heart wasn’t the only one recovered from the Jacobin convent site. It was, in fact, one of five such discoveries, each housed within its own lead container. As well as de Perrien’s, three of the other hearts bore inscriptions that allowed researchers to identify their owners.
Among these other hearts were those belonging to a man named d’Artois, to a man known only as the son of la Boessière and to a lady by the name of Catherine de Tournemine. Unfortunately, though, researchers were unable to discover any more information about these people; today, only their names remain.
In any case, soon the hearts were attracting attention across the scientific community. A team of radiologists were called in, and using CT and MRI scans, they were able to closely examine the structures of the centuries-old hearts. Interestingly, too, although one was healthy, others showed signs of coronary disease.
Now back in 2015, radiologist Dr. Fatima-Zohra Mokrane dismissed the significance of finding de Perrien’s heart in his widow’s grave. “It was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife,” she said in a statement from the Radiological Society of North America.
However, as time passed, experts realized that this was not the case. According to Colleter, the discovery in fact represents the earliest known incidence of such a practice. Although some French aristocrats had been known to order the removal of their hearts after death, this was the first time that archaeologists had seen the process performed for romantic – rather than religious or political – reasons.
Such insights notwithstanding, this tale has something of a sad ending, though. For while de Quengo’s descendants eventually reinterred her body in Tonquédec, some 100 miles from Rennes, de Perrien’s heart has remained frozen in a laboratory, awaiting further study. And as for de Quengo’s own heart, well, its whereabouts remains a mystery.