An international team of scientists opened the tomb of a famous 16th-century Danish astronomer Monday in an effort to shed light on his sudden and mysterious death.
Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546, has been buried in the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn near Prague's Old Town Square since his death in 1601.
Brahe was in Prague at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II after he left his scientific observatory on the island of Hven over disagreements with the Danish king.
His extraordinarily accurate stellar and planetary observations, which helped lay the foundations of early modern astronomy, are well known and documented, but mystery still surrounds his sudden death.
It had been long thought he died of a bladder infection. A famous legend said it was a result of his hesitation to break court etiquette during a reception by leaving for a toilet.
But tests conducted in 1996 in Sweden and later in Denmark on samples of his mustache and hair — obtained during a previous 1901 exhumation — indicated unusually high levels of mercury, leading to a theory of mercury poisoning, even possible murder.
Jens Vellev, a professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark, was leading the team of scientists from Denmark and the Czech Republic that began its work by opening the tomb in the church on Monday.
Vellev said he decided nine years ago to seek permission from church and Prague authorities to open the tomb again because there had been no proper archaeological report of the 1901 exhumation and he hoped to gather better samples of mustache, hair and bones that could be analyzed by contemporary technologies.
"As a man of science, he's important for the whole world," Vellev said.
The scientist said the tests will include a CT-scan and an X-ray technique known as PIXE analysis and be conducted at the Nuclear Research Institute AS in Rez near Prague. Vellev said he hopes they will help establish Brahe's intake of mercury in the last weeks of his life when he apparently was taking medicine that contained mercury to relieve pain.
"Perhaps, we will be able to come close to an answer, but I don't think we will get a final answer to that question," the scientist said.
The team of scientists has until Friday to exhume the remains of Brahe and his wife, who was buried by his side three years later, and to take the samples needed. The results of their analysis will be announced next year.
They also are interested in Brahe's skull. He had part of his nose cut off during a duel with a fellow nobleman as a student and it was replaced by a metal plate. The plate was not found in 1901, but the tests should be able to determine what it was made of, Vellev said.