More Napoleonic remains found

  • 2002-09-19
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

More than 50 additional skeletons believed to be the remains of Napoleonic soldiers retreating from their march on Moscow were found in Vilnius last week, prompting a flurry of interest in the Lithuanian capital.

Documentary TV crews from the British Broadcasting Corp. and Discovery Channel were in the Siaures Mietelis commercial quarter of Vilnius this week, where the remains were found, to shoot footage.

City officials have already approved a reburial site in the city's Antakalnis Cemetery for what archeologists say could be up to 3,000 soldiers who historians suspect were buried in a mass grave.

The French government has pledged to cover the majority of expenses related to the reburial and building a memorial.

The first 2,000 French soldiers were found at a construction site in March. Archeologist Albinas Kuncevicius said he thought up to 4,000 might be buried in the mass grave and as many as 7,000 skeletons of Napoleonic soldiers might be scattered about the entire quarter of Vilnius.

Archeologists say it is the largest mass grave of Napoleonic soldiers yet found.

At one point, excavations were suspended for lack of funds, but both the BBC and Discovery have since chipped in 17,200 litas (4,500 euros) to help finance the project, while city authorities have earmarked an additional 60,000 litas.

Historians say the find promises to offer new insight into Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign to Moscow.

The soldiers were buried as they retreated from the ill-fated campaign to Moscow, dumped in a ditch they had built when advancing on the Russian empire.

"It is very good material to illustrate the Russian-French war of 1812," said Mindaugas Blaudziunas, a producer for the U.S.-based Discovery Channel and a former resident of Kaunas.

A new Discovery broadcast is called "Moments in Time."

BBC will shoot a documentary called "Meet the Ancestors."

"In 1812, Vilnius was full of dead French soldiers. After taking Vilnius, the Russians tried to set them on fire, but it produced an unpleasant smell in the city," said anthropologist Rimantas Jankauskas.

"Later, the Russians decided to throw hills of corpses into the trenches on the outskirts of Vilnius. Corpses were thrown into trenches without any order. Corpses lie on each other. This burial site gives a lot of information about the young generation of 1812. The Napoleonic army included young men from many European countries."

Many of the remains were found with pipes, suggesting most soldiers were devoted pipe smokers, Jankauskas said.