It Could Be the Head Of Nicolaus Copernicus

Archaeologists excavating graves beneath a gothic cathedral in Frombork, Poland, last August found a skull that researchers believe is that of the famed astronomer.
Archaeologists excavating graves beneath a gothic cathedral in Frombork, Poland, last August found a skull that researchers believe is that of the famed astronomer. (By Anna Pietrzak -- For The Washington Post)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 26, 2006

FROMBORK, Poland -- This Baltic coastal village prides itself as the hometown of Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer and scientific revolutionary who showed that the Earth revolved around the sun. There's a Copernicus museum and a Copernicus altar; even the tower where he did his stargazing almost 500 years ago has been carefully preserved.

One thing is missing: Copernicus himself.

The people of Frombork have long known that Copernicus died somewhere around here in 1543, but the failure of their ancestors to record exactly where he was buried has fueled one of the most enduring mysteries in Polish history, despite repeated attempts over the centuries to locate his grave.

Recently, however, a team of archaeologists reported a breakthrough: the discovery of a skull deep below the flagstones of the 14th-century Frombork Cathedral. Aided by fresh historical research and a high-tech police crime lab, the archaeologists have tentatively concluded that the skull -- that of a man with a broken nose who was approximately 70 years old when he died -- is indeed that of the astronomer.

The findings have aroused excitement in Poland, where Copernicus is regarded as a national hero. But they have also forced Poles to make some uncomfortable reckonings with history, such as the question of whether Copernicus was Polish at all.

There's also the complicated role in Copernicus's legacy played by the Roman Catholic Church, which suppressed his research as the work of a heretic for almost 300 years after his death, but is now sponsoring the effort to identify his remains.

Historians had long suspected that Copernicus was buried in the Gothic cathedral on a hilltop overlooking Frombork, where he worked as a canon for decades while dabbling in astronomy on the side. But the task of determining exactly where was made all the more difficult because Swedish invaders repeatedly ransacked the crypts beneath the cathedral in the 17th century. Dozens of long-deceased Fromborkians were buried and re-buried on top of each other, turning the church foundation into a giant boneyard.

Jerzy Gassowski, the archaeologist who led the search for Copernicus, said he almost turned down the assignment when he was asked by church officials in 2004 to help. "I said, 'No -- that would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack,' " said Gassowski, chairman of the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Pultusk School of the Humanities, near Warsaw. "I did not believe for one minute that we would discover him."

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland, in 1473, and moved to Frombork in 1510. Shortly after arriving, he began formulating radical theories about astronomy, including the idea that Earth circled the sun, rather than vice versa. Catholic leaders declared Copernicus's work immoral and theologically incorrect, placing it on the church's Index of Forbidden Books, where it remained until 1835.

Around that time, historians began to show renewed interest in Copernicus. Unsuccessful searches for his final resting place were conducted in 1802 and again just before the outbreak of World War II.

Under its post-war communist government, Copernicus was celebrated in Poland as a national icon. But his burial site remained a mystery, in part because church leaders were not eager to allow communist functionaries to dig up their property.

That obstacle was removed with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. But it wasn't until 2004 that another organized search began, on the instruction of the auxiliary bishop of Warmia, a region of northeastern Poland that includes Frombork.

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