Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
One of Lithuanian history’s big mysteries may be resolved by the summer with the historians and anthropologists closely examining the human remains recently found on the top of the Gediminas Hill in the heart of Vilnius.
The findings have set a scientific buzz, with some of the historians pondering that the fragile bones excavated on the hill while executing maintenance works could belong to the participants of the 1863-1864 uprising against tsarist Russia. Furthermore, some scholars believe the remains could be of its leaders, including Zigmantas Sierakauskas (Zygmunt Sierakowski) and Konstantinas Kalinauskas (Konstanty Kalinowski).
«I think we will have some news to tell the public by the summer by when the findings will have been examined,» professor Rimantas Jankauskas of the Faculty of Medicine at Vilnius University, who coordinates research of the remains, told Lithuanian media.
In the professor’swords, the success of the research will largely depend on what photographs and other information is provided by historians.
«For individual identification, we will examine the skull portraits. The result should be quite reliable,» he said.
Archaeologists from the National Museum of Lithuania (NML) last month unearthed the remains of four people on the hill. Some of the bodies were buried without coffins, covered in lime. The remains have been recently transferred to anthropologists at the Faculty of Medicine.
The NML says that it has photographs of some insurgents, which could be helpful in identifying the remains, and it also plans to seek help from other institutions.
«We will invite the Office of the Chief Archivist of Lithuania and other archivists to cooperate, because the photographs and other historical data on specific individuals that are available to us might be insufficient for more accurate research. It will require lengthy and painstaking search work,» Arminas Šileikis, the museum’s spokesman, said.
According to him, the Restoration Centre of the NML is currently engaged in the conservation of various objects found next to the remains.
Participants on the 1863–1864 uprising sought to revive the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was annexed by Russia in 1795.
For the past century and a half, Lithuania has been attempting to discover the graves of the uprising leaders and participants but with no luck so far.
The sources available to historians suggest that the insurgents were slain in the Lukiškių Square in central Vilnius in 1863.
Over the years, Lithuanian archaeologists have carried our excavations in several Vilnius locations, including the Gediminas Hill and Lukiškių Square, but none has produced a breakthrough.
It was Wladyslaw Zahorski, an amateur Polish historian, who, in 1904, brought up the idea that the bodies of the rebels could have been put to rest on the Gediminas Hill.
Ostensibly, the historian had obtained a document revealing that most of the bodies were dumped in an undisclosed ditch, while the bodies of the uprising leaders, Zigmantas Sierakauskas and Konstantinas Kalinauskas, were hauled to a burial on the Gediminas Hill, controlled by the Russian Tsar’s Army.
However, the emergency maintenance works on the hill, following a precarious landslide in the beginning of the year, have given the research a new push.
The landslide exposed a slew of larger bones and their fragments on the hill. And moreover: the archaeologists who rushed to the site unearthed more tell-tale signs of the burials of the historic uprising’s victims.
«In one of two graves, there was a single body in the coffin and, in the other, there were three male bodies, who were thrown one on another. Judging about the position of the hand bones in the first burial, it seems that the deceased man was laid with his hands tied; whereas in the second grave, only one of the bodies was buried that way. Notably, the bodies in the grave were covered with lime,» Arūnas Kalėjus, archaeologist and a senior official at Lithuania’s National Museum, told Lithuanian media.
Other strong evidence purporting the possible connection of the remains to the uprising participants are the pieces of clothing found in the graves.
«Some of the details, like the calks of the shoes and the shirt and trousers buttons strongly suggest that the men were buried in the 19th century. Interestingly, in the first burial, we also found a silver medallion with the picture of St Mary of the Gates of Dawn, a shrine in the old city of Vilnius, on one of its side. And there is a drawing of Šnipiškės chapel on the other (side). Such medallions were not available before the middle of the 19th century. We believe that the bodies were thrown in there in the second half of the century,» the archaeologist said.
In his words, the fact that the men were buried in a group burial, thus showing disrespect to them, also is significant.
Unlike now, back in 1863, the Gediminas Hill and the surrounding territory belonged to the Russian empire and was turned into a military fortress accessible only to the Russian tsar’s troops.
«With the execution carried out in the Lukiškių Square, they could hardly find a better place to hide the bodies than the Gediminas Hill. If the burial site had been known to the-then Vilnius residents, it could have been eventually turned into a shrine of worship. The Russian troops did not want that, no doubt about it,» Kalėjus reasoned.
It is believed that 21 insurgents were executed in the Lukiškių Square.
Meanwhile, Valdas Rakutis, a war historian, believes that if the research links the remains to the uprising victims, it will mark a major historic discovery.
«It would send an important message to all of us, as the uprising is viewed ambiguously today. We shouldn’t forget that the participants were real patriots and heroes of their time, although they fought for the restoration of a joint Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth and some of the uprising leaders were Poles and Belarusians,» he underscored.
The National Museum informs that the access to the territory of the Gediminas Hill and Gediminas Castle Tower is temporarily closed due to repair works until April 2017.