Archaeologists open Prague tomb of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

Danish and Czech archaeologists have been working to open the tomb of the 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who spent the last years of his life in Prague and is buried in a church in the city’s Old Town. The experts plan to analyze his remains to see if they can throw more light on his mysterious death.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Digging begins at the tomb of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague’s Church of Our Lady Before Týn on Monday morning.

Several dozen Danish and Czech scientists are examining his grave; they will later remove the astronomer’s coffin with the aim of analysing his remains. They are hoping to find clues as to how the famous astronomer and alchemist died in 1601.

Archaeologist Jens Vellev, from Denmark’s Aarhus University, is in charge of the whole project.

“It’s going a little slowly. It could have been easier if the modern tombstone, from 1901, had been placed directly on the vault, and not set in concrete. The concrete was a little difficult to remove, so it took a bit longer than we expected. But I hope it will be done today.”

The astronomer’s tomb was first opened in 1901, 400 years after his death.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Popular legend has it that Brahe died of an internal infection when his bladder burst as his good manners did not allow him to leave the table before the emperor.

However, recent tests of Brahe’s hair removed in the first exhumation have suggested high levels of mercury, prompting speculation that he may have been poisoned – possibly by his collaborator Johannes Kepler. Others believe he might have been murdered at the behest of the Danish king.

Jens Vellev is sceptical about these assumptions. And he says his team is not interested in finding the would-be culprit, only ascertaining the cause of death.

“Why should someone kill him? He was a very nice and pleasant person. Some say it was Johannes Kepler, others say it was the Emperor Rudolf II or the Danish King Christian IV. But that’s not why we are here. These theories are just theories, and they are not something we are dealing with in our investigation.”

Mr Vellev says the scientists are also planning to examine the remains of Tycho Brahe’s wife, Kirsten. She died three years after her husband, and was buried next to him in the Týn church.

Jens Vellev,  photo: CTK
“We are also very interested in Tycho Brahe’s wife to see what condition her remains are in. We want to compare her bones with Tycho’s remains to see if she took medicine with mercury during her life. It was perhaps usual that people took such medicine; if this was the case, it was then not uncommon that he took such medicine before he died.”

After Danish and Czech experts remove the two coffins from the tomb, they will take samples for detailed analysis that will take several months to complete. However, the remains of the famous astronomer and his wife will return to the church on Friday, during a mass celebrated by the Archbishop of Prague.