The Identity Of This Medieval Skeleton Haunted The Nazis And The Soviets

Photograph of the Medieval grave in Prague, shortly after excavation in 1928. © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2019

After laying in the ground for over 1,000 years, dead and long forgotten, a mysterious skeleton became an important figure in the clash of science and political ideologies that played out during World War Two and the Cold War. While he was used and abused as propaganda by both the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Czechs, the identity of this curious person has been the subject of continued debate.

"He was caught up in the maelstrom of the 20th-century wars and the shifting political ideologies that went with them," lead author Professor Nicholas Saunders, from the University of Bristol in the UK, told IFLScience. 

"The dead can always be weaponized politically, just as he was."

But beyond the politics and ideology, who was he? A new study, published this week in the journal Antiquity, has sought to find out. 

The skeleton was first unearthed in July, 1928, beneath the courtyard of Prague Castle in Czechoslovakia alongside a bunch of bladed weapons and metal tools. It was discovered by Ivan Borkovský, a Ukrainian who fought for both the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians in the early 20th century, who came to Czechoslovakia in 1920. For unclear reasons, perhaps related to questions over his Czech citizenship at the time, he never got around to publishing his results about the discovery.

© Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2019

By 1939, the German army came to occupy Czechoslovakia. They immediately picked up on this loose end and decided that the skeletal remains belonged to a German warrior or a Nordic Viking, not a Slav, thereby justifying their occupation of the country. The skeleton’s supposed identity also helped the Nazis claim that the great Prague Castle was, in fact, built by Ayran Germanic people rather than a group of Slavic origin.

So, when Borkovský wrote a book about the oldest Slavic pottery in central Europe, the Nazis were not pleased as it threatened their sense of history. After being threatened with imprisonment in a concentration camp, Borkovský’s book eventually made into on the shelves, albeit edited with a heavily Nazi-influenced interpretation.

Following the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Czechoslovakia then fell under the influence of the Soviets. Once again, Borkovský found himself in trouble. His action as an anti-Communist before the war led to the threat of imprisonment in a Gulag unless the mysterious skeleton was portrayed in line with the Soviet idea of history. And so, the skeleton was defined as an “important person who was related to the early Western Slav Przemyslid dynasty” – he became a Slavic person, once again.  

"Nazi ideology claimed a pseudo-scientific occult/archaeological Nordic supremacy argument to say the whole of Central Europe was German, Nordic, Viking in origin – and this plugged into their Aryan racist ideas," Professor Saunders explained. "The Soviets in their own way claimed the opposite – that Slavonic peoples were key – and thus Russia or Soviet Union were paramount." 

Prague Castle during the visit of Heinrich Himmler in 1941. © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2019

Today's archeologists have a much more nuanced idea about this guy's identity. We do know that this man was a warrior, who lived sometime around 800 to 1000 CE, because of the sword he was buried alongside. However, the style of the sword is unique, not like any of the 1,500 early medieval graves found in Prague Castle. He is also surrounded by an array of diverse objects, not necessarily from the local area. 

They argue that the old debate of whether this man was Germanic or Slavonic is simply a symptom of 20th-century ideologies. In reality, the identity of people in the Middle Ages wouldn’t be forged along these lines at all. 

"Our warrior may well have regarded himself as a genuine Viking, and there are good reasons for assuming as such. Yet he may actually have been a Slav from a neighboring region, who had mastered Old Norse as well as Slavonic – a warrior and leader who lived a widely traveled, adventurous and belligerent existence, before being laid to rest beneath what was to become Prague Castle," the study concludes. 

The story of Borkovský and the Prague Castle warrior grave reminds us that our ideas of the past can often become tangled with our own modern sensibilities. 

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