Irish church officials are pleading for thieves who stole an 800-year-old crusader’s mummified head over the weekend to return the body part before it is further damaged.
Many of the centuries-old preserved human bodies at Dublin’s St. Michan’s Church were vandalized during a break-in, the Church of Ireland reported on Monday, including the crypt’s most famous occupant, a 13th-century corpse nicknamed “The Crusader.”
The Crusader, most likely a local parishioner, was given the moniker because he was originally buried with his arms and legs crossed, which signaled to historians that he could have been part of the Crusades.
On Monday, a tour guide for St Michan’s Church discovered that thieves had broken in and turned the body over. The Crusader’s legs had been pushed up into his torso and his head was decapitated, The New York Times reports.
Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson said he was shocked that someone would desecrate this ancient burial place.
“I would appeal to those responsible to examine their consciences and return the head of The Crusader to its rightful place,” Jackson said in a statement.
St. Michan’s Church, founded in 1095, has crypts on its property that contain the bodies of prominent Dubliners who lived between the 17th and 19th centuries. The crypts are constructed from limestone, which makes the air particularly dry, The New York Times reports. The area’s methane-rich soil decreases oxygen levels. These factors contribute to an environment that has allowed the bodies to slowly mummify.
The crypts have been a tourist site since the Victorian era. Bram Stoker, the Irish author of the Gothic horror tale “Dracula,” is believed to have visited the site with his family, according to the St. Michan’s Church website.
The crypts now draw about 28,000 visitors every year. The Crusader was a special attraction. At about 6 feet, 6 inches, he would have been unusually tall for his time. In the past, visitors were encouraged to shake one of his hands.
The Rev. David Pierpoint, the church vicar, told the Independent that The Crusader’s head still had skin, a nose and ears. Pierpoint fears that the head, which he said had been there 800 years, could deteriorate outside the crypts.
“There’s property in the crypts that keeps them preserved for so long,” Pierpoint told the outlet. “But once it’s exposed to the extremes of the outside world, my fear is the longer it takes before the head is returned or recovered, then the head will just disintegrate.”
The vicar said he hopes the head is returned so it can be reinterred with the body.
“Let him lie in peace,” Pierpoint said.
In addition to The Crusader, the vandals appear to have desecrated several other bodies in the crypts. The 300-year-old body of a nun had been “trashed,” Pierpoint said, and her head “turned around the wrong way.”
The vandals also broke into a crypt belonging to the family of the Irish mathematician William Hamilton, opened a coffin and dragged its contents out, the Irish Times reported.
The vicar described the “gruesome scene” at his church as “vandalism, sacrilege, desecration,” according to the Independent.
Local police are investigating the incident.
“We’re not quite sure what the motive behind all of this is. Whether its vandalism or, we don’t know,” Pierpoint said.
The crypts will be closed to tourists for the foreseeable future, according to the Irish Times.
St. Michan’s crypts were previously vandalized in 1996, apparently by a group of teenagers who “seemed to be playing football with the heads,” Pierpoint said.
The vicar said he’s “completely devastated” by the vandalism.
“It’s just a very sad day,” he told the Independent.