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Mummy Feces Solve the Mystery of How Verona’s Most Powerful Man Died

Digging deep for the secret behind a medieval warlord’s mysterious death

Cangrande della Scalla was one of the most respected warriors of his day. (Borgese Maurizio/Hemis/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

What killed the most powerful man in Verona in 1329? Conspiracy theorists have long speculated that Cangrande della Scala, an Italian nobleman and patron of Dante, died of more than an upset stomach. And the mystery of della Scala’s sudden death by diarrhea at age 38 has now been solved—using mummified fecal matter. 

Della Scala was one of medieval Italy’s most respected—and feared—warlords. So when he fell ill and died just days after a critical military victory, speculation began to swirl. Some blamed contaminated water for della Scala’s downfall, but others wondered if he had been murdered. 

Seven-hundred-year-old poop helped crack the case, reports Discovery News. After exhuming della Scala’s body from a tomb in Verona in 2004, a team of archaeologists from the University of Pisa conducted CT scans and analyzed the body using X-rays. At first, the scans seemed to confirm the theory that della Scala had just been in bad shape: he had arthritis, liver damage, tuberculosis and a throat full of vomit.

But there was something else left over in della Scala’s mummy: dried-out feces. Tests showed that the poop contained traces of plant matter from the genus Digitalis, commonly known as foxglove. Given this type of plant's toxicity and its tendency to cause gastrointestinal distress, drooling and even seizures, historians now view della Scala’s diarrhea and vomiting in a whole new light. 

Archaeologists say that the presence of foxglove in della Scala’s feces was “totally unexpected.” But though the dung discovery gives hope to historians looking to crack other unsolved mysteries, it has opened up a new whodunit. Who poisoned della Scala? The political intrigue of medieval Verona left behind a long list of potential suspects—and this is one very cold case.

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