Scientists try to crack mysterious case of medieval skeleton

When human remains from the 10th century were unearthed beneath Prague Castle in 1928, the discovery was shrouded in mystery that still persists today. Now, scientists are trying to figure out the identity of the man that caused such debate.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Antiquity describing the remains.

The man found beneath the castle’s courtyard had been buried with a sword and two knives. The location was on the edge of an older burial ground belonging to the hill fort that occupied the area between 800 to 1,000 AD.

An excavation project by the National Museum of Czechoslovakia had discovered him while attempting to find the oldest parts of the castle. At the time, Czechoslovakia had only been established for about ten years.

Ivan Borkovský made the discovery. He was a Ukranian who fought for the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians before ultimately escaping in 1920 to Czechoslovakia.

The discovery wasn’t shared and Borkovský opted not to publish a study about what he found. So in 1939 when the German army invaded, Borkovský was accused of purposefully not publishing anything about his discovery as an attempted cover-up. The Germans believed it was a conspiracy to hide the fact that the remains belonged to a German man or a Viking, rather than a Slavic one.

If he were German, it would support their propaganda efforts and claims that German ancestry spilled across borders with deep foundations in the past. The discovery was also used as proof that the castle was Germanic rather than Slavic under the Nazi regime.

Borkovský initially tried publishing a book about the discovery of the oldest Slavic pottery recovered in central Europe, but the Nazis threatened to imprison him in a concentration camp. He ultimately withdrew the book.

A year later, his Prague Castle remains study published, and suggested, under pressure from the Nazis, that the skeleton had Nordic ancestry.

The Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia after World War II was over and Borkovský’s “anti-Communist activities” almost had him thrown in a Siberian Gulag, but he escaped.

Borkovský published another study in 1946 to try to right the wrongs of the first study, because he felt forced to deliver the pro-Nazi Nordic interpretation. The second study identified the burial site “as that of an important person who was related to the early Western Slav Przemyslid dynasty.”

Now, scientists are trying to understand the remains in a new way with more analysis.

The grave goods found with the man included a mixture of items considered foreign in the area where they were found, the study published in Antiquity said. His sword, axe and a fire striker, which was a common possession for Vikings, didn’t originate there. But his knives and bucket came from close to home.

“The sword is especially unique as it is the only one discovered in 1,500 early medieval graves so far found in Prague Castle,” said Nicholas Saunders, study author and professor at the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. “Perhaps he was a Slav from a neighboring region, who had mastered Old Norse as well as Slavonic, or perhaps he regarded himself as a genuine Viking.”

The discovery is a reminder of how complicated the matter of identifying remains can be.

“Identities were complex in the medieval period, and the story of Borkovský and the Prague Castle warrior grave reminds us that the identities of such past people frequently fuel modern political conflicts,” Saunders said.