A ‘surreal’ story has emerged this week concerning the exhumation of Salvador Dalí’s body, twenty-eight years after his death. The decision to unearth Dalí’s corpse was made after a Spanish tarot card reader, Pilar Abel, made the claim that the Surrealist artist was her biological father. The paternity has not yet been established, however another curious discovery has been made – Dalí’s intact moustache!
The famous facial hair characteristic for its upward sweeping waxed points has remained in a remarkable condition. Dalí’s embalmer referred to the discovery as ‘a miracle’, but science says otherwise. As all biology students will know, hair is composed of the protein Keratin which resists decomposition by enzymes due to the tight disulphide bonds. Keratin is also insoluble in water, and therefore resists rainwater damage.
Even when not preserved, hair can last for many thousands of years. The oldest example of hair found to date is 9,000-years-old, however analysis is being performed on a potential 200,000-year-old sample. Ancient Egyptian hair is frequently discovered intact as the mummification process involves a fat-based gel that acts as an excellent preservative, but even unpreserved Egyptian hair can be often discovered due to the dry nature of dessert burial grounds.
The Dalí exhumation and paternity suit has fascinated scientists and art historians alike, and has angered the authorities involved. Ian Gibson, a biographer of Dalí, argues that the artist having a child was ‘absolutely impossible’ as Dalí always boasted: “I’m impotent, you’ve got to be impotent to be a great painter”.’ The local council and the foundation carrying Dalí’s name were both against the exhumation, claiming that they were not given enough notice. The Dalí Foundation also assert that Abel’s claims are false.
Natural scientists hoping to study at Oxbridge should investigate the stages of decomposition in organic matter and the chemical reactions involved. Art historians should consider the impact of the recent news stories about Dalí on the value of the artist’s work. Historians should study burial environments and the impact on the preservation of remains.