Surprise discovery of Napoleonic burial site

  • 2002-03-21
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

The discovery of what may be the biggest burial site ever found of soldiers who fought for Napoleon Bonaparte during the war of 1812 has become an archaeological sensation in the Lithuanian capital.

The remains of 2,000 French soldiers, who appear to have died from exposure and starvation when retreating from the Russian army, were found in the Siaures Miestelis area of Vilnius.

They seem to have been thrown into a single ditch.

Siaures Miestelis was a Soviet military base during the Soviet occupation, until the Russian army left Lithuania in 1993. It's an area of shabby Soviet-era barracks which has in recent years become a cheap base for business start-ups. New supermarkets, shops and roads have been built there.

Human bones were dug up as underground wires were being laid. Police who arrived on the scene soon realized the bones were very old and that they should call in the archaeologists.

"It was easy to realize that they were French soldiers from 1812 because the Napoleonic army's buttons and scraps of uniform were found. The numbers of the regiments are on these buttons," said archaeologist Daiva Luchtaniene.

The entire find will take some months to catalog.

French Embassy officials have visited the site. No decision has yet been made about a final resting place for the soldiers.

The French army fled from Russia through Lithuania in December 1812. The Napoleonic army was just a shadow of what it had been, a miserable, hungry crowd. They knocked on doors in Vilnius and begged for food.

Many sick Frenchmen found refuge in the homes of Lithuanians. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the wounded and the dying.

The army did little to care about the proper burial of its soldiers. It may have been the Russians pursuing Napoleon's army who decided about where their final place of rest should be.

It seems that hundreds of bodies were simply thrown to pits and covered over with soil. Bodies lay on top of each other without any order.