Real work starts now, says scientist after examining remains of 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe

Photo: CTK

Danish and Czech researchers have just completed the first part of a project that should throw more light on the death of the 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe. Legend has it the Dane died of a burst bladder, though tests of his hair indicated possible mercury poisoning. The scientists this week took fresh samples from Brahe’s remains, before returning them to his tomb at the Týn Church in Prague. Just prior to the reinterment, Radio Prague spoke to the head of the team, Jens Vellev.

Photo: CTK
“It has been a fantastic week. We have had great experiences, and the conditions for our work have been great, too. Tycho Brahe’s bones, and those of his wife, have been preserved in a very good condition.”

You opened the tomb on Monday, and today the remains will return to the church. Did you have enough time for all the analyses you needed?

“The analyses will be done over the next year. We have taken small samples and it was just enough time to do that. We did the excavation in the church with a Czech team over two or three days, and that was a very short time, but they managed to also uncover the bones of Tycho Brahe’s wife.

Photo: CTK
“It was a fantastic sight to look down to the burial chamber with the two coffins standing there, and now all of us are happy and we can start the real work next week.”

Was there anything that surprised you when opened the tomb, or the actual coffin with Tycho Brahe’s remains?

“Yes, the condition they were in. It was like it was in 1901, and especially the robe was so well preserved that we can for sure make a total reconstruction of Tycho Brahe’s funeral robe. You could immediately tell it was not a robe for daily wear, it was a funeral robe because the stitches were very rough. It was a special dress made for him, for his funeral.”

Tycho Brahe's skull,  photo: CTK
What will happen now? You said the analyses will take about a year – will you continue working with Czech scientists on the project? And when do you expect the final results?

“The first small report will come out this year, in December, I hope, that will say what have been doing so that everybody on the team knows what has been done by the others. But next year, we’ll carry out extensive analyses in Copenhagen, in Sweden and many of them will be done here in Prague.”

As I understand it, you will compare your results to those of the previous tests done in 1990s, and you will also for the first time analyze Tycho Brahe’s bones?

Jens Vellev,  photo: CTK
“Yes, we will analyze the bones for the first time because before, we didn’t have the ability to that. We have taken samples from both Tycho Brahe and his wife so that we can compare the samples and so that we can say, next year, more about not only Tycho Brahe’s death but also about his life.”

So at the very end of the project, you will have an answer to the question how Tycho Brahe died?

“I don’t think so because it’s a very complicated issue. But perhaps we’ll be able to see if the amount of mercury was so big that he could have died of it. I’m not sure we’ll get to that result, but you will certainly hear about it next year.”