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.
The bishop, Jacek Jezierski, said his primary motivation was to bring some order to the jumbled mess of skeletons lying under the cathedral. But he acknowledged that it was important for the Catholic Church -- and Poland -- to give the astronomer his due place in history.
"Among Poles there is a strong feeling of pride and sense of close bonds with Nicolaus Copernicus," Jezierski said. "We have to bury him with due respect. This will be the homage paid by the church to Nicolaus Copernicus."
Although he was born and buried in modern-day Poland, the astronomer spoke German and may have had German ancestors -- a fact that is occasionally trumpeted by German newspapers and magazines, which rank Copernicus as one of the most eminent Germans of all time.
Such claims gall many people in Poland, where resentment is still acute over long German and Prussian occupations of their land. And that has added a touch of politics to the search for his body.
"There is this delicate issue of his nationality," Jezierski said. "After World War II, this matter was given immense attention, and his Polishness was stressed very strongly. But it is not so easy. We know that his family was undergoing the process of assimilation as Poles. We know that he wrote in Latin, but probably spoke German in everyday life."
Whatever Copernicus's nationality, a team of archaeologists set out last August to find him, digging a large, eight-foot-deep hole in the floor of the Frombork Cathedral. The precise spot was chosen under the guidance of a local historian, who had combed through church archives to examine burial practices from the Renaissance era.
After several days of painstaking work, the crew had uncovered more than a dozen skeletons, but none that appeared to be a man of Copernicus's age.
The excavation pit was growing so deep that the crew feared it might destabilize the foundation of the massive cathedral, and they prepared to call off the search. Poking around in the dirt one last time, however, they discovered another skull.
It was missing its lower jaw, but an anthropological examination indicated that it belonged to a man about 70 years old who had suffered a broken nose. This raised the level of excitement, because contemporary portraits of Copernicus suggest his nose was crooked.
The skull was taken in a box to Warsaw and given to Dariusz Zajdel, an examiner with the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Polish national police. Zajdel specializes in using computer techniques to reconstruct the facial images of corpses found at crime scenes, and he occasionally helps Polish anthropologists with older cases. But he wasn't told where this skull came from or who it might be.
After a few weeks of analyzing the bone structure and other features, Zajdel came up with a computer-generated image of an old man with stringy white hair, bushy eyebrows and a prominent nose. It bears a fair resemblance to portraits of Copernicus.
"Every Pole has a certain image of Copernicus," Zajdel said. "So it was good to keep me in the dark, because otherwise I might have been biased. When I learned that this might be Copernicus, I felt a burden of responsibility."
Gassowski, the archaeologist, said he is now "99 percent certain" that the skull belonged to Copernicus.
The only way to eliminate doubt is to match DNA from the skull with a sample from a known descendant or relative of the astronomer. That won't be easy, since Copernicus had no children.
But researchers think they have a solution. They are now preparing another excavation to look for the remains of Copernicus's uncle, the former bishop of Warmia, who is also believed to be buried in Frombork Cathedral. Exactly where, no one is sure.
Special correspondent Halina Potocka in Warsaw contributed to this report.