Mummy studies contribute to knowledge of Northern Finnish disease history

The researchers in Oulu are pioneers in the tracing of Finnish disease history with the help of mummies. By studying the mummy of Nikolaus Rungius, a Vicar of the Kemi parish, Archaeologist Tiina Väre has discovered that the clergyman may have suffered from tuberculosis, obesity, and, according to the latest findings, gynecomastia.

Archaeologist Tiina Väre was introduced to Nikolaus Rungius, the mummy of the Vicar of the Kemi parish, already as a child. “My grandmother lives in Kaakamo. We went to see the mummy of Rungius in the old church of Keminmaa many times,” she says.

The Vicar died in 1629, and in addition to being a tourist attraction, his mummy is a valuable treasure chest for multidisciplinary research.

Tiina Väre, who defended her doctoral thesis in archaeology a year ago, has studied the Vicar’s health and diet on the basis of analyses performed on Rungius’ mummy.

Väre is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Kirkko, tila ja muisti (Church, space and memory) project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, aimed at studying how changes in the world view are visible in the Northern Finnish churches and burial practices from the early modern period.

A new research article was accepted in the project in April. The researchers partnered with Paleopathologist Francesco Galassi, who has been chosen on Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 list.

“When we were working with a three-dimensional model of the mummy, we noticed calcifications in the mammary glands that were atypical of male anatomy”, explains Väre.

Most likely it is a case of gynecomastia, or in other words excessive growth of breast tissue in men. Such findings have not been reported previously in mummified remains. Due to reducing testosterone levels, gynecomastia is commonplace in elderly men.

The findings in the chest area may also be explained by calcifications caused by a tuberculous inflammation.


Three-dimensional model of the mummy of Rungius has promoted the study of the disease history. There are references of inflammation state caused by the tuberculosis and of the calcification of chests.


Bulging waistline idealised in Rungius’ time

Tiina Väre discovered in her doctoral thesis that Rungius may have suffered from tuberculosis.

“We found a collapse of a few thoracic vertebrae in the spine, which appeared to be of inflammatory origin. Tuberculosis is most often found in the lungs, but if it enters the skeletal system, it is usually found in the spine,” Väre explains.

Since her dissertation, Väre has been working as a guest researcher in co-operation with the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Oulu.

The team has applied computed tomography as the radiology method. With this technique, they have scanned a three-dimensional model of the mummy.

As a second method, the researchers have used stable isotope analyses. By studying the relationships between the isotopes of bone tissue elements, it is possible to determine what kind of nutrition a person has been digesting at the time of tissue formation.

According to the results, Rungius was not short on food.

 “In the spine we discovered a condition caused by diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, or, in other words, skeletal overgrowth of unknown origin. It occurs in aging men with a heavy diet,” says Väre.

Väre notes that the stable isotope analysis revealed nitrogen values in Rungius that cannot be explained just with terrestrial nutrition.

Nitrogen levels are elevated by animals that eat other animals.

“Based on the results, Rungius was very high up on the food chain. The people in Kemi have always eaten plenty of food from the waters. On the western coast, where Rungius served as a chaplain, the people ate seal meat, for example.”

It is essential to acknowledge context in the investigation of the diet. Rungius lived in a time of war and poor weather conditions. The ordinary folk did not enjoy as plentiful a diet as a clergyman belonging to the rural aristocracy.

“In this sense it is likely that Rungius has been keeping up with the current fashion trends: he has had a bulging waistline that was idealised at the time,” says Väre.


The researchers in the project called Church, space, memory are also interested in grave textiles. Rungius was wearing valuable clothes when he was buried. The textile relics in the picture are not from the study in question. Photo: Mikko Törmänen


From the shadow of celebrity mummies

Tiina Väre says that she has always been interested in diseases, history and religion. Her latest research endeavours combine all three.

“It is a universal phenomenon that people are interested in the preservation of mummies. For some reason, many are fascinated by death as the last mystery.”

According to Väre, the archaeologists and medical researchers at the University of Oulu are the Finnish pioneers in mummy studies.

Rungius has been studied as early as in the 1970’s, but actual research reports have not been previously published. In addition to Rungius, there are other known mummified remains beneath church floors.

Mummies in European crypts have been studied extensively. In addition to the mummies of Egypt, international interest has also been focused on more recent cases.

“Celebrity mummies have become a hot topic. For example, a very well preserved child mummy called Rosalia has been found in Sicily, and it has been studied extensively. The crypt of the same church holds also mummies of monks.”

Väre points out that there are ethical questions related to mummy studies. An ethical code is being prepared.

“The rules are still a bit vague. It is less complicated to study the mummy of Rungius, who led a public life, than other mummies.”

However, there are still restrictions on what the researchers can do with Rungius. The mummy's teeth would disclose his childhood diet and possibly his DNA, as teeth are usually the surest place to find intact DNA.  However, the teeth are beyond the research team’s reach: Rungius has his mouth closed, and they do not want to destroy the mummy.


Mystical mummification

It is still undetermined why the body of Rungius became mummified. According to the legend, the preacher Rungius had claimed that if his words are true, his body will not rot.

“It has been thought that his statement might have been a possible advertisement for the message of the church. I also find it believable that Rungius himself thought that his body would be preserved, and explained it with his faith. People at the time knew that there were mummies under the church floor. In the 17th century, the process was interpreted as divine influence. The preservation of the body was not a surprise,” points out Tiina Väre.

The level of moisture beneath the church has been measured, but the conditions below the floor are not particularly dry. For one thing, the mummification process has required adequate ventilation. In the Finnish conditions, coldness is one factor promoting mummification.

“Bodies with few bacteria are mummified best. If a person is acutely ill when they die, the body is more likely to rot and at a quicker pace,” says the researcher.

Consequently, archaeologists have used bones to determine the occurrence of mainly chronic diseases. Diseases that leave marks on bones include leprosy, syphilis and tuberculosis.

Studying the history of diseases increases understanding of disease heritage. Furthermore, increased knowledge supports the modern medicine.


Everyday experiences take shape

Archaeological research always requires a wider context. “For this purpose, it is productive to study man-made objects, literary sources, and the remains of persons. These things together provide a more comprehensive view of the past,” Tiina Väre emphasises.

According to Väre, there has been relatively little information available on the life of Northern Finnish people in the 16th and 17th centuries. The diseases and diet, discovered by working on mummies, increase our understanding of the everyday life of people at the time.

The researchers in the Church, space and memory project are next publishing an article on burial textiles.

“The mummy of Rungius looks like it would not have any clothes on, but it does, and valuable clothes, too,” says Väre.

After Rungius, Väre plans on moving to study an extensive set of dental material with the aim of determining how childhood diet and breastfeeding are visible in teeth.

At the moment, there is also an ongoing project led by Sanna Lipkin studying childhood in Post-medieval Finland.


Tiina Väre, Doctor of Philosophy who defended her thesis on the mummy of Nikolaus Rungius, is currently working on a popular non-fiction book on the life of Rungius. In addition, a document is currently in the making on Rungius, as is an exhibition for various museums. In late May, Väre presented the case of Rungius in the World Congress on Mummy Studies held in Santa Cruz, Tenerife. Kuva: Sanna Häyrynen


Facts: Nikolaus Rungius

Born in Loimaa circa 1560. Died in Kemi in 1629.

Worked as a Vicar of the historical Kemi parish in the early 17th century.

As was customary at the time, Rungius was buried beneath his home church.

The Vicar’s mummy has been displayed to the public since the 18th century. Since the 1930’s, the mummy has been placed in an glass-lid coffin. Before that the mummy could be visited in the tomb underneath the floor.

The mummy's right forearm and most of the bone and soft tissue in the neck are missing.

Based on stable isotope analyses performed on the mummy, Rungius has enjoyed a diet rich in protein.

Computed tomography has revealed indications of an infection possibly caused by tuberculosis in Rungius’ spine, and of calcifications in the breasts, which may be caused by gynecomastia, i.e. excessive growth of breast tissue in men.

The old Church of Keminmaa will be closed from the public for the summer 2018 due to renovation.


Text: Sanna Häyrynen

Main photo: Researchers found a collapse of a few thoracic vertebrae in the spine, which appeared to be of inflammatory origin. The vertebrae in the picture is not from the study in question. Photo: Mikko Törmänen

Last updated: 27.3.2019