Aachen reliquary with fibia

Bones of an Emperor

What did Charlemagne look like? A recent scientific examination of one of his leg-bones have brought us a bit closer.

Already in the year AD 1000, Otto the III went to Aachen and opened the grave of Charlemagne. According to chronicles it took place during the night and in the presence of only a few. Later in 1165 Frederic Barbarossa had the emperor declared saint. At this time his bones were lifted out of the grave and placed in a wooden reliquary. Later in 1182 the bones were once more lifted up and placed in the magnificent Karlsschrein. However, at that point in the story the bones were already in the process of being shattered. In 1165 the bone of an arm had been placed in the standing arm-reliquary, in 1350 the top of his skull was placed in the Bust of Charlemagne and the bone of a leg was placed in the gothic reliquary from 1370 -80.

In 2009 this reliquary had to undergo restoration and a team of pathologists and anthropologists under the direction of Pro. Dr. Frank Rühli from Zürich had the opportunity to study the legbone. Using X-rays and computed tomography they found that Charlemagne had indeed been tall.

The Bones of Charlemagne Foto: Domschatzkammer Aachen/dpa
The Bones of Charlemagne 1988
Foto: Domschatzkammer Aachen/dpa

By working together with the anthropologist Joachim Schleifring, who was responsible for the pathological examination in 1988 of the bones kept in the Karlsschrein, the team has been able to be rather precise about his bodily stature.

According to these researchers, Charlemagne was 1.84 metres, which in a modern context (where everybody on average is higher) corresponds to a 1.95 metre. He must have towered over 98 out of a 100 persons in his time.Statue of Charlemagne or his son - 9th century

Further they found, judging from relation between the length and the width of the tibula, that he must have been a slender and probably a gracile person, perhaps with a weight around 78 kg. As far as could be detected, he did not suffer from any serious illnesses. However, the team in 1988 found some calcification in his knee and in his heel, signs of old age. He might have limped in the end, something, which his first biographer told about him (Einhard – see below); also Thegan, who wrote about his final days mentioned his need to lean on the arm of his son during the coronation of the latter.

Unfortunately the team have not had the opportunity to do a stable isotope analysis as this would involve invasive procedures, which have not been allowed. This might have yielded information of where he grew up plus not least information about his culinary habits. Some samples must have been taken, though, since a press release from the Domschatzkammer tells us that DNA has been secured in order to make it possible to compare it at a later stage with “relatives”, buried elsewhere. Exactly how this was done is currently not known, as the scientific results are still waiting to be published. However the DNA results show that the bones in the different reliquaries without doubt have belonged to the same elderly man. Perhaps this DNA has been taken from some teeth, which were kept in the same reliquary as the tibia. And samples might be reused for and Isotope-analysis.

Finally – just to lay any wild dreams at rest – the inventory of the contents of the Karlsschrein in 1988, tells us that apart from the top of his skull, which is preserved in the Bust of Charlemagne, nothing further is left of his skull. Thus, there is no reason to dream of a proper reconstruction of his looks as has been done in connection with for instance Richard III and others.

Hopefully the full results will soon be published.


Press release 29.01.2014

Charlemagne was very tall, but not robust.
By Frank J. Rühli, Bernhard Blümich and Maciej Henneberg
In: Economics and Human Biology 2010, vol 8, pp. 289 -290

“In diesem Grab ruht Karl…”. Rekognoszierung der Gebeine Karls der Grossen in Aachen.
By Joachim H. Schleifring.
In: Das Rheinische Landesmuseum, Bonn. Berichte aus der Arbeit des Museums 1989/6 pp.

Karl der Grosse: Aachens dienstbare Leiche.
By Werner Tschacher
In: Die dienstbare Leiche. Der tote Körper als medizinische, soziokulturelle und ökonomische Ressource. Studien des Aachener Kompetenzzentrums für Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Vol 5, p. 29 -35. Kassel University Press 2010
ISBN Print 978-3-89958-664-0
ISBN Online 978-3-89958 -665-7

Einhard’s description of Charlemagne’s personal appearance
“Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot. Even in those years he consulted rather his own inclinations than the advice of physicians, who were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aixla-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years until his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.” ( From Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Samuel Epes Turner , New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880)



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