Last year archaeologists from France's National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research discovered five heart-shaped lead urns in upper-class burial vaults in the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France. The graves dated back to the late 16th or early 17th century.

It turned out those heart shapes were meant to be interpreted quite literally: Each urn contained an embalmed human heart.

Hervé Paitier, Inrap

A team of radiologists performed archaeological heart exams on the five. While one heart was healthy and another was too poorly preserved to study, the remaining three revealed what we tend to think of as a very modern affliction: heart disease. Specifically, they found plaque on the coronary arteries.

Ironically, while the embalming preserved the hearts, it also hampered the researchers' analysis of them. "We tried to see if we could get health information from the hearts in their embalmed state, but the embalming material made it difficult," study author and radiologist Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, of the University Hospital in Toulouse, said in a press statement. "We needed to take necessary precautions to conduct the research carefully in order to get all possible information."

While initial MRI and CT scans of the heart were intriguing, researchers knew they'd get a much better view of the interiors if they removed the embalming material. Once that was done, they rehydrated the tissue, then rescanned the hearts. The second round of MRI and CT scans revealed different heart structures, including chambers, valves, and coronary arteries—and allowed them to make their diagnosis.

The findings were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).