Anatomy of a Grave-Hunt

The quest began with a simple enough question: "Where is the skull of Andreas Vesalius?"

Where exactly is the grave of Andreas Vesalius? This historical mystery, at the unlikely intersection of anatomy, archeology and cartography, could soon be solved. But not without a final crowdfunding effort. 

It's a mystery tinged with irony. Vesalius (1514-1564) popularised autopsies and (unwittingly) kicked off the centuries-long trend of 'resurrectionism': snatching bodies for dissection by medical students. Now it's his own grave that scientists are after, and their search involves a studious postmortem of the landscape where he was buried, with ancient maps as material evidence. 

The search started some time before 2014, the 500th anniversary of Vesalius's birth. To celebrate that event, medical artist Pascale Pollier set out to reconstruct the face of Vesalius, from his actual skull – a fitting tribute to the father of modern anatomy. But where was that skull? The historical record showed that Vesalius died on the Greek island of Zakynthos. And that's where the trail went cold. 

16th-century map of Zakynthos, transposed on a topographically accurate modern map.


It's fair to say that few scientists have been as consequential for the development of modern science – in particular medical science – as Vesalius. So how could his last resting place have been neglected, forgotten and ultimately lost?

Born in Brussels to a family of apothecaries and physicians, Andries van Wesel later latinised his name to Andreas Vesalius, as was the fashion among Renaissance scholars. He studied anatomy in Paris and Louvain, where he famously robbed a corpse from a gibbet outside the city walls in order to procure a complete skeleton. He obtained his doctorate in Padua in 1537, then immediately received a professorate there, teaching surgery and anatomy.

His seminal work is the seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica ('On the Fabric of the Human Body'), published in Basel in 1543, when Vesalius was just 29 years old. The book is a milestone in the transition from the symbolic approach to medicine to an empirical one. With his insistence on learning via dissection of the human body, Vesalius not only improved upon, but even superseded Galen, whose teachings on medicine had been authoritative for over a millennium, despite the fact that Galen's autopsies on Barbary macaques were as close as he got to human anatomy.

The Fabrica has been called “the most beautiful medical book ever published”, combining the best science, art and typography that 16th-century Europe had to offer. In 2011, the only completely coloured first-edition copy of the Fabrica known to exist (probably the one presented by Vesalius to Charles V in the autumn of 1543) sold at Christie's for over $1.6 million, more than double the highest estimate of $600,000. Because the colouring was most likely carried out under the supervision of Vesalius himself, the author's portrait provides the only historical basis for our knowledge of Vesalius's complexion and hair colour.

For Vesalius, publication of the book also marked a turning point in his career. He left academia to become the personal physician to Emperor Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and from 1556 to his successor Philip II and their respective entourages, in Spain. 

In 1564, Vesalius, a devout Catholic, left Spain for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He visited the Holy Places, but never made it back. It was long assumed that he had been shipwrecked on the island of Zakynthos, then a Venetian colony. Scientists now think Vesalius fell ill on the sea voyage home – with scurvy, some argue; general fatigue, say others. Recently rediscovered eyewitness reports say he collapsed on the quay of Zakynthos, dying in October 1564.

Previously, Vesalius was thought to have been buried at the Franciscan abbey at Kalogerata, near the beach. However, reports from European pilgrims to Jerusalem place the tomb at the local Catholic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (1).

Ground plan of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (1806)

That further complicates matters, as the church was destroyed in the big earthquake of 1953 which levelled most of the buildings on the island. The ruins of the church were bulldozed into the sea, and it was never rebuilt. The city itself rose from its ashes on a slightly different street grid. 

So in 2014, with the help of Belgian embassy in Greece, Belgian archeologists conducted Phase One of the Quest for the Lost Grave of Vesalius. Painstakingly matching historical maps of the area to satellite imagery and modern cartographic data, Dr. Sylviane Déderix identified the exact location of the ruins of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church: on the north side of the city, partly under the intersection of Kolyva and Kolokotroni streets, and partly under some adjacent houses built after the quake.

Location of the vanished church on the current street grid.

So far, so good. But now, to enrich the data of the first phase, more applied cartography is necessary, specifically: tracking down cavities, foundations and other subterranean anomalies via ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and electrical-resistivity tomography (ERT). The archeologists have now received permission from the Greek ministry of Culture to perform this non-invasive research. Work could start as soon as September, if the crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds, now tantalisingly close its goal, is successful.

Location of the church on Google Earth.

If Phase Two produces actionable results, Phase Three would consist of targeted, small-scale excavations in areas that could hold the grave. And there is indeed a good chance that Vesalius is still in the ground, says Theo Dirix, of the Vesalius Continuum project: “Previous construction work on the spot has already turned up funerary slabs, proving there was a cemetery. Moreover, one of them dates from around the time Vesalius was buried here”.

One report suggests Vesalius's tombstone may have been looted in 1571 by the Turks. If bones are found without identifying inscriptions, it is hoped they will yield enough DNA for forensic analysis; the project has already tracked down descendants of Vesalius's mother Elisabeth Crabbé for mitochondrial DNA comparison.

Zakynthos street grid pre-earthquake (blue) and post-earthquake (red).

There is however a small chance that bones yielded by the underground on this specific plot of Zakynthos belong to another luminary from centuries past. The church was constructed over a much older cemetery; in the 1540s, about two decades before Vesalius was interred at the church, a grave believed to be that of the famous Roman orator Cicero was discovered in its grounds.

Many thanks to Theo Dirix for the images used here. For more on the search for Vesalius's grave, go to Vesalius Continuum.

Strange Maps #850

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(1) Christoph Furer von Haimendorff, who visited Zakynthos in the year following Vesalius's death, gives the epitaph: ANDREAE VESALII BRUXELLENSIS TUMULUS, QUI OBIIT ANNO DOMINI M. D. LXIV. ID. OCTOBRIS, CUMEX HIEROSOLYMA REDIISSET, Anno Aetatis suae LVIII.  Mariae de Gratia (however, Vesalius was 50, not 58 years old when he died)

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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