Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday Archaeology Blogging
Napoleonic Edition.

The Island of St. Helena

So, some buzz in the papers this week over this story:

Cancer killed Napoleon, study affirms
Researchers disprove decades-old myth that the French emperor was poisoned
Randy Boswell, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An international team of researchers, including two Canadians, has added a new twist to the mystery surrounding the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, the famed French emperor alleged to have been murdered by arsenic poisoning during his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821

An interesting piece of medical archaeology here. The team examined the original autopsy report, and compared it to more recent reports of gastric cancer. They also, somewhat bizarrely, studied Napoleon's pants, determining that he'd lost a considerable amount of weight shortly before his death, which is a common symptom of stomach cancer.

So, did they make their case? Well, sort of. Assuming, and it is an assumption, that the original autopsy was accurate, it does appear that Napoleon was suffering from a massive lesion in his stomach, one that was too large to be a mere ulcer. Furthermore, the autopsy recorded very little evidence to support the theory that he was poisoned with arsenic. The study did not address the tests performed in 2001 that found traces of arsenic in a sample of Napoleon's hair. However, that study assumes that the hair sample was in fact Napoleon's, and that the arsenic could not have got there post-mortem. In the end, this recent study does seem more-or-less convincing (interestingly, nobody really seems interested in the possibility that he was being poisoned with arsenic while suffering from stomach cancer).

Some people, however, were unimpressed:

Montreal businessman Ben Weider, an avid collector of Napoleonic artifacts and a leading advocate of the theory that Napoleon was poisoned during his exile at St. Helena, has dismissed a previous study by Alessandro Lugli -- which also concluded that cancer was the culprit -- as "hogwash."

And yesterday he dismissed the latest theory as nothing more than "the ridiculous speculation of ignorant doctors."

"The French Historical Society wants to discredit me because I am a Canadian who manufactures bar bells," Weider told the Montreal Gazette. "The French are funny. It's tough for them to accept the truth from someone like me.

Oddly enough, the study wasn't conducted by the French at all, but by a joint Swiss-American team, with participation from some other countries. Anyway, Weider's statements put me in mind of an article I read some time ago in Archaeology magazine about the phenomenon of so-called "crackpot" archaeology. The article, which I was unable to locate online, suggested that there were a number of traits which would identify a particular archaeological theory as absurd. Among them was the fact that proponents of such theories will react to any criticism of the theory with immediate accusations of conspiracy. Mr. Weider seems to have that one down in spades.

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