Reading 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 at the construction site in the Lithuanian capital last winter.

The horrified work crew feared they had uncovered a mass grave of either Jewish Holocaust victims or those murdered by the notorious Soviet secret services. After all, eight years earlier and just a few hundred yards away, Rimantas Jankauskas, an anthropologist at Vilnius University, had uncovered 700 skeletons of residents executed by the KGB near the end of World War II. But this find turned out to be larger--and far older. When investigators found 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 will begin a fresh excavation this week of what is believed to be the biggest mass grave of Napoleonic soldiers ever found in Europe. And 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? What do the bones reveal about health care at the start of the 19th century? 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?

The hurried initial excavation conducted last March has offered a tantalizing hint of what's to come. Lithuanian and French teams, working together as construction cranes swung dangerously overhead, have so far unearthed 1,724 skeletons, almost 1,500 buttons (100 of which were still legible), the soles of boots and the buttoned-down sides of gaiters, a single five-franc piece emblazoned with a Napoleon bust and the number 13 to mark the 13th year of his reign, a gun-cleaning pin, the skeletons of numerous horses, a handful of small-denomination Russian coins and several leather caps, once embellished with red, white and blue cockades but now faded to muddy brown. "Just by looking at the buttons you can say that there were as many as 40 regiments here--French, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Spanish..." says historian Virgilijus Pugaciauskas.

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 of 1812, assembling his troops for the march to Moscow. They were to return to Vilnius a few months later as a stupefied, 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.

The dead he left behind were victims of a particularly disastrous endgame in 19th-century military history: Napoleon's humiliating retreat from Russia. The French emperor had crossed the Niemen river separating the French controlled Duchy of Warsaw from Russian-controlled Lithuania with at least 442,000 soldiers. Barely 10,000 survived. His Russia campaign--a mistake repeated by Adolph Hitler 130 years later--has gone down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time.

No one knows the exact number of men that straggled back into Vilnius that December, but first-hand historical accounts give a clear picture of their lives in the few days before the Russians caught up with them. One account by a local countess describes seeing "terrified corpses in the streets, seated on the ground, leaning against walls, preserved by the cold, their limbs shrunken and stiff in the position in which Death had overtaken them." Another anonymous account tells of "several places where the wretches had gathered in houses, they were burnt to death inside without having the strength to get out." Disposing of those corpses--who numbered as many as the living residents of the town--posed its own problems. Burning them created a terrible stench, and when the Russians tried to push the bodies under the ice into the river, they re-emerged when the snow melted.

According to Alvydas Nikzentaitis, director of the Lithuanian Institute of History, the bone pit found by the construction workers was initially a military defense trench, built by the men before their march on Moscow. In effect, they dug their own graves. Anthropologist Jankauskas says preliminary studies of the skeletons found show that where gender could be determined, there were 903 males and 27 females. (Another 794 are of undetermined sex.) "The role of women in early armies has been largely neglected. We seem to have found that women were at least a small part of the army, perhaps even just in small trade, washer-women or cooks. But they were there with the troops," he says. Another question historians have pondered was whether Napoleon used older, more experienced troops or younger recruits. "I've read that his soldiers could be no less than 25 and had to have experience of 2-3 military campaigns and a stature of 184 centimeters [about 6 feet]," says Jankauskas. But of the 364 skeletons whose biological age could be estimated within a five-year range, there were 38 between 15-20 years old. "It seems the French army had taken some assistants along--some teenagers and drummer boys perhaps," says Jankauskas. Most of the dead were men in their 20s.

There is also little evidence of a massacre. A reading of the bones suggests that the men simply died of cold and starvation. Only three skeletons have obvious signs of wounds created near the time of death. Those fractures, in fact, support Napoleon's own claims that the cold had done them in. Where bone splits were found, they were more likely caused by looters ripping the shoes off frozen corpses to keep for themselves. Some bones showed lesions that are evidence of syphilis. No bones had signs of chronic malnutrition, meaning that the men's demise was swift and merciless. Judging by the teeth samples, says Jankauskas, dental care was not part of the Napoleon army health care package. And given the lack of valuables found, the mass grave was almost certainly looted.

Some of the bones even reveal some intimate details of Napoleon's men. At the Faculty of Medicine where many of the bones from the first dig are stored, Jankauskas pulls a skull from a white plastic bag. He locks its lower jaw into position and points to one tooth with a deep, smooth wedge burrowed into it. "This fellow loved to smoke his pipe."

The team of French mass grave specialists will return to Vilnius in mid-October to carry out further tests on the bones due to be uncovered in the latest excavation. They are 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. They are looking, too, for early strains of tuberculosis. "This is a disease that is now reemerging, and we need to understand where it came from," says Olivier Dutour, an anthropologist who is leading the French team.

In addition, the French will be studying tooth enamel. Since dental enamel is formed in childhood, such tests could help scientists determine the soldiers' places of origin. Testing of stable isotopes and trace elements could give unprecedented details about 19th century diet and nutrition. What is clear, so far, says Dutour, is that the cold must have been unbearable. "I believe Napoleon was right--it was the cold that did it. He underestimated the Russian winter just like Hitler did."

Already, 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. From a political perspective, Lithuanians hoping to join the European Union are relishing the country's renewed link to European, not Soviet, history. "Lithuanians have always known their connection to Napoleon, but we doubt Vilnius is often on the minds of Frenchmen," says Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas.

Meanwhile, rural residents have offered their outlying towns as the next hot spot for an excavation. It seems only the construction companies are unhappy about the discovery. 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. And with fewer than 2,000 skeletons found so far, that leaves another 38,000 possibly still lying in wait.