Deciphering The Bones

The skeletons were twisted around each other, many frozen in a fetal position as if they were trying to stay warm. There were skulls and tibias, femurs and ribs, all piling up in the claw of the tractor breaking ground for an elite Vilnius housing complex. "The bones wouldn't stop coming out of the ground," recalls one worker. The horrified crew feared they had uncovered a mass grave of either Jewish Holocaust victims or those murdered by the notorious Soviet secret services. But this find turned out to be far older. When investigators dug up numerous brass buttons inscribed with a three-digit number, they knew that only one group had worn such items: Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armee.

Now scientists are beginning a fresh investigation into what is believed to be the biggest mass grave of Napoleonic soldiers ever found in Europe. Their findings are expected to provide fascinating answers into life on the Continent almost 200 years ago. Who joined the Imperial Army and why were there women's skeletons in the pit as well? How were prisoners of war treated? And, for the historians: was Napoleon correct in blaming the cold for killing thousands during his Army's disastrous 1812 retreat from Moscow, or was that just a cover-up for his military miscalculations?

A hurried initial excavation conducted last March offered a tantalizing hint of what may be in store. Lithuanian and French teams unearthed 1,724 skeletons, almost 1,500 buttons and a single five-franc piece emblazoned with a Napoleon bust and the number 13 to mark the 13th year of his reign. A second dig completed in September pulled up 500 to 700 more skeletons, along with three gold coins from Louis XVI. "Just by looking at the buttons you can tell that there were as many as 40 regiments here--French, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Spanish," says Rimantas Jankauskas, the lead anthropologist on the dig.

About 40,000 men of this pan-European Army are believed to have died in Vilnius, then a bustling political and military center. Napoleon spent 19 days there in June 1812, assembling his troops for the march to Moscow. Most returned en masse in the first days of December, a half-dead mob, exhausted and starving after their doomed attempt to take the Russian capital. Napoleon himself abandoned his Army and sped on to Paris. Of the 442,000 soldiers who crossed into Russian-controlled Lithuania, barely 10,000 survived. Napoleon's Russia campaign--a mistake repeated by Adolph Hitler 130 years later--is considered one of the worst military blunders of all time.

Firsthand historical accounts offer a chilling picture of what happened. One, by a local countess, describes corpses in the streets, preserved by the cold, faces frozen in terror, limbs shrunken and stiff in the positions in which death had overtaken them." Another tells of "several places where the wretches had gathered in houses, they were burnt to death inside without having the strength to get out."

According to Alvydas Nik-zentaitis, director of the Lithuanian Institute of History, the bone pit was initially a defensive trench, built by the men before their march on Moscow. In effect, they dug their own graves. But there is little evidence of fighting. A reading of the bones suggests the men simply died of cold and starvation.

Some of the bones have already revealed intimate details of Napoleon's men. At the Faculty of Medicine, Jankauskas pulls a skull from a white plastic bag and points to one tooth with a deep, smooth wedge burrowed into it. "This fellow loved to smoke his pipe," he says. Jankauskas's team of French specialists will return to Vilnius in mid-October for more answers. This time, they're hoping to get samples for DNA analysis to determine the genetic makeup of these unfortunate Europeans. They have also begun some DNA testing of pathogens rampant at the time to investigate the theory that there was a typhus outbreak among Napoleon's troops, and to search for early strains of tuberculosis. In addition, the French will be studying tooth enamel, which could reveal details about 19th-century diet and nutrition.

The discovery has had a dramatic effect on Vilnius. A monument to the soldiers is expected to be unveiled this winter and local historians are now suggesting the creation of a Napoleon tour route. It seems only the construction companies are unhappy. Not only do they face falling property prices from buyers reluctant to live on a mass grave, they also have to pay for archeological digs on any territory they wish to develop. With about 2,000 skeletons found so far, that leaves another 38,000 possibly still lying in wait.