A Grave Discovery

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

The exhumed skull of Copernicus

No bones about it, a team of Polish archaeologists have found the skull of Nicolaus Copernicus. Which is to say, the archaeologists discovered the skull with no other bones surrounding it.
Jerzy Gassowski, director of the anthropology and archaeology department at the Pultusk School of Humanities, led the team that found the 16th-century Polish astronomer’s skull in the tombs of Frombork Cathedral. According to Gassowski, the exact location of Copernicus’s grave has been a bone of contention for centuries. Researchers only knew that Copernicus was interred somewhere in the cathedral, where he was once a canon.

“The idea of searching for his grave came from the local bishop,” Gassowski said via e-mail. “He asked [our department] to conduct excavations inside the cathedral to localize and find the burial site of Nicolaus Copernicus.”

Copernicus, who was a mathematician and economist as well as an astronomer, is best known for his heliocentric theory of the universe.  Until his revolution, scientists believed that the sun and planets orbited the earth. Their system led to hideous, inelegant models of the solar system involving epicycles—small circles of planetary motion that, when repeated, create a larger circular orbit around a central object. (Picture a Slinky with its ends connected to form a loop.) It was Copernicus’s vision that gave us the beautiful elliptical orbits we know today.

In August 2004, the excavation to locate Copernicus’ final resting place began, guided only by the knowledge that canons were typically buried near the altars they served. The team dug around the altar Copernicus had used as a priest. Prominent physical anthropologist Karol Piasecki identified the skulls of individuals who died around age 70, thus narrowing the field of candidates.

By August 2005 the researchers had found a possible Copernicus. The jaw of the skull was missing but the forensic laboratory of the Polish national police was able to reconstruct the face that belonged to the skull. The researchers compared the skull to realistic portraits of Copernicus painted during his lifetime.

“The common opinion of the experts in physical anthropology is: That’s him,” Gassowski said, adding that he is hesitant to give his verdict based on limited evidence.

“I say we have him…97%,” he said. We will have 100% certitude “only if we have the opportunity to compare his DNA to someone related.”

If Gassowski can make such a genetic comparison, he can rest assured that he exhumed the bona fide Copernicus.

Originally published November 8, 2005

Tags math research space time

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