Game of Thrones exposed: How molten gold would really kill you
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Image: HBO

A couple of weeks ago we mythbusted that mind-blowing death at the end of Game of Thrones season four, episode eight.

So to celebrate the finale tonight, we thought we’d revisit one of our favourite and most gruesome deaths (yep, big call) from the series - Viserys and his gold crown.

For those who need a refresher: in season one, Viserys Tagaryen, the sadistic brother of the much-loved Mother of Dragons, is desperate for a crown. Eventually, Khal Drogo grants his wish…and kills him by pouring molten gold over his head.

For most of us watching, our reaction went from shocked to horrified and then to morbidly curious - just how exactly does molten gold kill someone? 

Rachel Nuwer over at Smithsonian has done some investigating. As she explains, Viserys actually got lucky. Centuries ago, people used to execute humans by pouring gold down THEIR THROAT - Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder is rumoured to have died this way, as well as a corrupt, gold-loving governor in South America.

But although cases are well documented, no one was sure what actually killed the victims. Was it the heat of the gold? The steam? The suffocation when it cooled?

A 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Pathology aimed to find out, but instead of gold in their experiment, they used lead (hey, this is science after all, our budget isn’t quite as large as HBO’s).

The researchers picked up a cow larynx from a local slaughter house and closed the end, which would usually be attached to the rest of the cow, with tissue paper. They then poured 750g of pure lead heated to around 450°C into its throat.

This is what happened next:

Immediately, large amounts of steam appeared at both ends of the specimen, and the clot of tissue paper was expelled with force by the steam. Within 10 seconds, the lead had congealed again, completely filling the larynx.

After everything cooled down, the scientists took cross sections of the larynx and studied them under a light microscope - the muscle was cooked or damaged to a depth of about 1cm, and the throat mucus layer had been completely burned off.

Their conclusion? While the molten metal might choke you, burn your lungs and rupture your organs, it’s ultimately the steam that’s likely to kill you first.

While Viserys didn't have the gold poured directly down his throat, we can only imagine the effect of the steam coating his head would have been similar.

And steam, of course, is very very hot. As Daenerys says about her brother: “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.”