Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Ivan's Lament Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Kristin M. Romey

Moscow scientists can now confirm a rumor that has floated through the halls of the Kremlin for over 400 years: Anastasia Romanova, the beloved first wife of Czar Ivan IV who died suddenly at the age of 25, was poisoned.

Chemical analysis of the czarina's well-preserved braid, recovered from her sarcophagus in the cemetery of the Kremlin's Archangel Cathedral, revealed unusually high amounts of mercury. In cases of acute mercury poisoning, contaminated sweat soaks the victim's hair, where the metal can remain for a long time.

Analysis of the remains of other ladies of the medieval court buried nearby revealed that many were exposed to lead, arsenic, mercury, and barium--present in makeup and medicines of the time--that may have caused an early death, but were not in themselves fatal.

The behavior of the devastated czar following Romanova's death in 1560, allegedly at the hand of a rival of Ivan, earned him the moniker "Ivan the Terrible."

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America