Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Coeur de France Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Kristin M. Romey

DNA testing is expected to reveal whether a 200-year-old desiccated human heart once belonged to Prince Louis, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was imprisoned during the French Revolution.

It is thought that the prince died of tuberculosis at Temple Prison in Paris in 1795 at the age of ten. Since then, however, many people have insisted that the dauphin (a title given to the eldest son of the king of France) was rescued from prison by monarchists; an imposter is said to have died in his place.

In the years following the Revolution, more than 100 men claimed to be the prince. Experts on the French monarchy say that dozens still claim to his direct descendants, although few have made their claims public.

Scientists in Belgium and Germany are now attempting to extract DNA from a human heart claimed to be that of the prince. If successful, they hope to compare the DNA with that from strands of Marie Antoinette's hair found in a locket that once belonged to her mother.

Test results are not expected before March, says Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a scientist at the Center for Human Genetics at Louvain University in Belgium who is supervising the tests there.

A physician present at the autopsy of the boy is believed to have snuck the heart out of prison in a handkerchief. It was stored for years in wine vinegar before it dried out. The organ eventually ended up in the hands of a printer's son, who bequeathed it to a branch of the French royal family in his will; after languishing in a château for decades, it was brought to the royal crypt at the Basilica of St.-Denis in Paris in 1975.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America