Who was buried in Frombork?

According to the anthropologist and professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Dr. Tomasz Kozłowski: "In the reconstruction based on the skull, brown pigmentation of the iris was used, following the matrix of the "Toruń Portrait". On the other hand, archaeogenetic research has shown that these alleged remains of Copernicus had a light iris during his lifetime, i.e. blue or gray eyes. This means it is a completely different man. Maybe even a blond?!"

TVP WEEKLY: During the World Copernican Congress, organized this year as part of the celebration of the 550th anniversary of the great astronomer's birth, there was a discussion panel entitled "The discovery of the grave of Nicolaus Copernicus -- a media fact or a scientific fact?" held at the end of June at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn. What was there to discuss, if, 13 years ago, the remains discovered in the above mentioned grave in Frombork had already been reburied with great pomp and honor in the local cathedral?

TOMASZ KOZŁOWSKI: Well, the subject is definitely worthy of discussion. Many of the specialists in the field of anthropology, archaeology, and the history of science involved in this matter are not convinced that the bones discovered in 2005 in Frombork belong to Poland's most famed scientist. To the contrary, some experts multiply these doubts and keep the debate alive. Meanwhile, media, not those dealing with popular science, but those who are simply popular, have been blowing the subject up, claiming that the grave, with "almost one hundred percent" certainty, had been identified as that "of Copernicus". Michał Juszczakiewicz, once the host of the popular TV show "From Kindergarten to Opole", was involved in promoting this research outcome. However, despite the fact that he was the one making the claim at scientific meetings and even having made a film about it, Juszczakiewicz is not a recognized expert in the fields of science, history, archaeology, or anthropology. Public opinion learned "the identity" of the remains from the media; not from critical scientific papers, several of which, including my own, were published in journals and monographs both in Polish as well as English.

So the Olsztyn panel was not the first scientific meeting on this topic?

No, it wasn’t. In February 2010, at the initiative of Prof. Michał Kokowski of the Institute of the History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, a scientific conference was organized in Cracow. Several monographs ensued. The professor was certainly the first person to be critical of the findings of the archaeological research conducted between 2004-2005 in the Frombork Cathedral by Prof. Jerzy Gąssowski of the Alexander Gieysztor’s Academy of Humanities in Pułtusk and his team. The two monographs published by this [Gąssowski] team of experts were not made available for sale nor were they circulated to academic libraries. They were distributed only among the authors' friends, making it difficult to get acquainted with them. Nor, for that matter, were they subject to any customary procedures of review and substantive editing by peer specialists not associated with the research team.

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An acknowledged historian of science, a methodologist, an expert on Copernicus and an engineer, Prof. Kokowski’s objections were primarily methodological. He found errors in all areas: historical, archaeological, anthropological, genealogical and genetic data. From my own anthropological background, I can also point out that the photographic documentation of the discovered remains has not been digitized which means that the conclusions are unavailable to any scientists seeking to undertake further research on them. Today these bones are reburied and I do not know if I would be in favor of opening the grave and examining them again. There are many difficult issues here. These are not the alleged remains of a trivial figure, but somebody very special in our history. People involved in these studies were recipients of state awards, medals and decorations. And what now? Nobody wants to address any questions about it. Attempts were made to ridicule the critics, to denigrate their competence, to keep them silent…

In Polish Google, the search term "Copernicus' face reconstruction" precedes all facial reconstructions, including Jesus. This reconstruction, done in 2005 by experts from the National Police Headquarters, has been described in school textbooks. At the Copernicus House Museum in Toruń, I viewed an interactive presentation on the subject. How would you, as an anthropologist, comment on this in light of the such a debate?

As I say, the problem is wider than just the reconstruction. The reconstruction is just one of the many elements concerning the discussion about the positive and reliable identification of the remains found in Frombork in 2005 that are considered to belong to Nicolaus Copernicus. But why is this narrative so popular? After all, none of the scientific criticism of the archaeological and anthropological research, or of the methodology used by specialists from the National Police Headquarters to carry out the head reconstruction using the upper part of the skull discovered in Frombork helped shape or form popular opinion about the matter at all. Why? Because only "positive" information "sold".

The National Police Headquarters is a serious institution. On its website, one can read that "all the anthropological, historical, archaeological and biological tests made it possible to confirm with almost 100 percent certainty the identity of the deceased astronomer's remains "...

The identification of corpses, which among other things is routinely dealt with by the experts from the National Police Headquarters, is done using completely different methods than those used for the identification of bone remains buried in the ground for half a millennium. I and many other anthropologists are skeptical about the so-called reconstruction of the vital appearance on the basis of the skull. Research on this subject shows that such a technology is not effective and that faces reconstructed in such a way are not correctly recognized and thus not identified. This technology is more correctly called facial approximation. If it is performed for medical and forensic purposes, especially in a criminal trial, then the reconstructed face must not be "dressed" or "combed" in a specific way so as to avoid adding any characteristic elements that could suggest anything to possible witnesses, victims or family. The judge would reject such "tuned-up" evidence on the spot or at least should do so.

One can also read on the National Police Headquarters website that the forensic laboratory was first sent a request for "reconstruction of the head of a 70-year-old man", without informing them who the bones in question might belong to. Yet, when the reconstruction was ready, specialists asked Prof. Gąssowski to tell them the era the skull was from so that they could "dress it up". Then, informed that they were reconstructing Copernicus, they dressed him as in the "Toruń Portrait".

And this is where, at least in part, the recognizability of this reconstruction came from. These similarities are deceptive. This reconstruction was done with the so-called Gerasimov's method, that in the literature on the subject is often criticized for incorrect representation of certain facial morphological systems, such as the nose. Use of this method makes it impossible to determine, for example, the thickness of the fatty tissue on the face or any skin marks, such as birthmarks, scars, etc.
Reconstruction and graphics: Central Forensic Laboratory of the Police Headquarters
Therefore, everything [in the reconstruction] resembles the "Toruń Portrait". I have personally made a comparative analysis of individual facial morphological systems (that includes over a hundred features) between the portrait and police reconstruction. It turns out that where we actually have a preserved part of the skull, practically nothing agrees (for example the area around the eye sockets -- eyebrows, eyes and nose) while in the lower part of the face, that was "glued on" without any existing mandible, many details are uncannily similar to those in the portrait. For example, the reconstructed face has a goatee and similarly strongly accentuated facial lines. Of course, a lot can be said about the sizes of various missing elements based on correlations with other existing elements, but ...!

To make it even less certain, the so-called "Toruń Portrait" does not have to faithfully represent Nicolaus Copernicus, much less be his self-portrait, as was once proposed. However, this is the most common image of the astronomer's face, as depicted in global pop culture. It is the iconic image, even when reduced to a few lines or a caricature, instantly recognizable whether it be among people in New York or in Arkhangelsk. So it is with this reconstruction, the power of suggestion plays a huge role.

It is not certain where exactly Copernicus was buried. Was it in Frombork, where he lived and died, or in Toruń, where he was born? Both cathedrals feature epitaph plaques dedicated to him. The research in Frombork started a little earlier because it had been established that the canons of the cathedral there were responsible for tending to the individual side altars and so were usually buried under them after they died. Thus, in 1543, Canon Nicolaus Copernicus should have been buried under the altar of the Holy Cross [that he used to take care of].

Such were the rules for these old burials that the bones were moved, and mixed so that often we would find the remains of several different people in the coffin. Moreover, they did not necessarily match those whose names were inscribed on the coffin lid, when such was the case. And in the course of time, clearly it was not only Copernicus who had "looked after" this particular altar and therefore he would not have been the only one entitled to burial beneath it. Such tombs are usually limited by the available space. This was certainly true of Frombork. In later times (18th-19th centuries), the canons of Frombork were buried in the local crypts, in liturgical vestments and with a chalice (often a wooden copy of an original) in their hands. Coffins were marked. About 200 of them have survived to this day. I have been able to see them personally.

Therefore, while there was not much space beneath these side altars, over time a large number of people were eligible for such a burial. In 2009, along with Prof. Arkadiusz Sołtysiak, we contributed an article to "Archeologia Polski" ["Archaeology of Poland", an annual scientific publication] pointing out that during excavations, archaeologists had found the remains of 13 people, one (marked as 13/05) being clearly identified as Copernicus. This conclusion was derived on the basis of these four premises. Firstly, the deceased 13/05 was buried in a place that, according to the hypothesis of Dr. Jerzy Sikorski (a Warmian historian and regionalist who also participated in the recent debate in Olsztyn) was to be the burial place of Nicolaus Copernicus. Secondly, the cranium of 13/05 was that of a man who died at the age of about 70. Thirdly, the appearance of the deceased, reconstructed on the basis of an incomplete skull, coincided with the appearance of Copernicus as represented on a copy of the lost portrait (the so-called "Toruń Portrait"). Fourthly, the maternal mitochondrial DNA haplotype isolated from the bones of this skull matched the haplotype of two out of four hairs found in a book that belonged to Copernicus years ago.

So we have quite a few premises all of which seem convincing...

While it may come as a shock to the popular public perception, the scientific verification is there thanks to the research led by Prof. Gąssowski and it is negative. To put it most carefully, many doubts have been raised. Already, thanks to publication by Prof. Gąssowski’s team, it was known that there was another well-marked, single (previously unopened) tomb in the vicinity of the "Copernicus altar" and that it contained the preserved coffin of Andrzej Gąsiorowski, the well known canon who lived after Copernicus. Had the custom been observed of canons being buried beneath the specific altars they took care of in life, then it is 100 percent certain that Gąsiorowski should not have been burried under the altar of the Holy Cross. However, he was there and it was his primary burial site.

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These excavations [in the Frombork Cathedral] were carried in a very confined narrow space and were small in size. They didn’t provide us with any information about what was there in a site located a little further away from the altar. It wasn't possible for us to reconstruct the funeral history of the location. It is a pity. What is more, the [supposed Copernicus] bone fragments (that included a few bones of the limbs, spine, pelvis, and the well known skull without its lower jaw) were found not in a coffin, not even in an earthen grave, but -- as calculated by Prof. Sołtysiak from the data of the source works -- in a layer of earth no thicker than 8 cm (sic!). This was not a burial place. They were just scattered in a layer of soil. It is even possible that it was a secondary deposit. The skeleton was incomplete and unaccompanied by any equipment -- nothing related to what might have signified [the owner's] function.

Then why was this skull chosen?

This skull was selected because Prof. Karol Piasecki, an anthropologist and member of the research team from Pułtusk, declared that this particular skull belonged to a person who died at the age of 70, just like Copernicus. He probably did it on the basis of the method of analyzing cranial suture overgrowth, an approach no longer recommended today, given its low efficiency and high individual variability. In contemporary forensic analysis, when it comes to assessing the age of a person at the time of death, we use comprehensive methods, not limited to one characteristic. Among these, the wear of tooth crowns is considered the most reliable feature. If the origin of other fragments of the skeleton is certain, an additional attempt could be made to analyze e.g. the height of the medullary cavities of the humerus and femur, the analysis of the auricular surface of the ilium, the morphology of the acetabulum, and so on.

Prof. Piasecki also adhered to the old school of racial typology and marked the so-called anthropological type of this skull as Mediterranean (which suggested dark pigmentation and brown eyes, as in the "Toruń Portrait"). This "anthropologically" served to close the subject of identifying the remains. Furthermore, they were studied by a population geneticist, also involved in morphometry, Prof. Wiesław Bogdanowicz from the Museum and Institute of Zoology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. In his publication, he describes the incomplete skull and few remaining bones as belonging to one "supposed skeleton of Nicolaus Copernicus". That is how we know what other bones were found with the skull.

From the publication by the antropologist Sebastian Tyszczuk, we also know that the skull had a very well preserved upper dental arch. Along with Prof. Sołtysiak, I analyzed the published photographs in terms of the wear of the tooth crowns. Our conclusion led us to believe that the person to whom this skull belonged died at the age of no more than 50. Of course, this approach is open to criticism when taking account of the possible lifestyle and diet of any given person. However, when comparing the first and second molars, you can see whether the teeth wore down slowly (both being equally worn) or quickly (worn to varying degrees, because the so-called seventh molar erupted six to seven years later than the sixth). Moreover, the degree of tooth wear has little to do with a person's health, hygiene or wealth. It has to be said, however, that the skull of the 13/05 was that of a person with healthy teeth.

Let us turn to genetics, because such an argument also appears. Genetics is like a key, a word that opens hearts and minds. In December 2007, the media stated that: "Research carried out at the University of Uppsala showed that the DNA obtained from a hair discovered in one of the books belonging to Nicolaus Copernicus is the same as that taken from the skull found in Frombork".

Let us return for a moment to the reconstruction of the face of Copernicus on the basis of the skull belonging to the 13/05 found under the altar of the Holy Cross. A reasonable question arises as to what pigmentation features of the iris were used by specialists from the National Police Headquarters. Well, they used a brown color, according to the anthropological type established by Prof. Piasecki and the "Toruń Portrait". On the other hand, archaeogenetic research conducted by the previously mentioned Prof. Bogdanowicz, published in the renowned scientific journal "PNAS" ["The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences", a peer reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences] in 2009, showed without any doubt that these alleged remains of Copernicus had a bright iris during life, i.e. blue or gray eyes. The thoroughness of this work lay precisely in the fact that it was possible to determine the eye color so exactly from the archaeogenetic material, among others. It was not about identifying the remains of Copernicus. I saw blue irises and fair skin substituted in the National Police Headquarters’ reconstruction. The resulting face was that of a completely different person. Maybe actually a blond man?!
Presentation of a robot with the face of Nicolaus Copernicus at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw. The robot has ... blue eyes and thanks to AI can talk about any topic. February 19, 2023. Photo: PAP/Mateusz Marek
Secondly, the hair DNA issue. Well, in the book, that actually belonged not to Copernicus, but to the library of Frombork canons, several strands of hair were found. There were apparently nine in total (without hair roots). Therefore, only mtDNA could be isolated from them and that only in fragments that simply allowed determination of the main haplotype rather than the full sequence. Two of the hairs did have an mtDNA haplotype identical to that of the 13/05 skull bone. However, according to Dr. Maria Aleen, who carried out the research in Uppsala, this result is inconclusive. This match, if we assume for some unknown reason that it is the hair of Copernicus, constitutes just the beginning of an individual's genetic identification. It is a bit like how blood groups can exclude paternity, but cannot confirm it with 100 percent accuracy. However, the "media fact" was that genetic tests confirmed the identity of the remains of Copernicus. Nobody so much as checked to see if these hairs didn't belong (they don't have a matching DNA haplotype) to other people who might have handled this book in the course of the last half century -- starting from its conservators from the 1970s and ending with the late Prof. Owen Gingerich of Harvard University. When he attended a conference in Cracow in 2010, he publicly stated that he personally knew five people who, like himself, had read the book at that time. It might just as well have been one of his hairs or one of theirs.

There is a high probability that we, both being from Central/Eastern Europe, have the same mitochondrial DNA haplotype since there are about four main ones for our ethnic area. So as a premise, this is not strong at all.

Prof. Kokowski has enumerated this before, and of course the probability that any of us have the same mtDNA haplotype as this skull is high. It's not a six in Lotto. The Swedish result was given as a main argument to all those who did not agree with the identification of these remains as belonging to Copernicus. There was a strong desire to succeed through this identification. This does not change the basics of the matter in the sense that in my opinion, the Frombork Cathedral is indeed the place where the grave of Copernicus is located.

All of this reflects the strong desire we [Poles] have to know about the tombs of our kings and scholars. After all, if you look at our history, the first Piasts [the first Polish royal dynasty] are missing and the last king was buried three times and we still don’t know where he lies. We always have to bring someone’s corpse home, look for someone’s grave, investigate... [Chopin’s] "body is in Pére Lachaise (the Paris cemetery) but heart in Warsaw"; [Marshall Pilsudski’s] body is at Wawel, his heart -- at Rossa [the cemetery in Vilnius in Lithuania], and no one knows where his brain is. Poland knows the phenomenon of symbolic graves. Graves and symbols are important to us because there were times when all of Poland had to move to them, somehow shrink and hide in them. So we do want to have and bury Copernicus. It's not unlike the British having Newton and Darwin lying in Westminster Abbey where everyone can see and touch their tombstones. After all, he is a scholar of the same dimensions, maybe even bigger, and certainly world-renowned. And Frombork is a small town today, with the cathedral and this grave its biggest tourist attractions. Of course, the regions has also a lot of beautiful water around. I'm a sailor so I appreciate that. We also have the Elbląg Canal and, further on, the Vistula Spit and its infrastructure.

Indeed, we don't have too many of those famous bones so when we find some we don't necessarily investigate that much if they're really what we think [or hope] they are.

Just think of the purported skull of Jan Kochanowski [the Polish Renaissance poet], which was once in the collection of Izabella Czartoryska [the Polish princess, writer and art collector] and is now in the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow. Since the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists such as Prof. Adam Wrzosek, Julian Talko-Hryncewicz, Michał Ćwirko-Godycki and Tadeusz Derżykray-Rogalski, have been involved in heated debates about this cranium. Also, the same Czartoryski collection features a "reliquary-coffin" containing a skeleton with attached certificates confirming the authenticity of the remains as being those of Nicolaus Copernicus! At least that's what Izabella Czartoryska herself claimed. I was informed about this by Dr. Anna Lebet-Minakowska, an archaeologist and museum curator. Yet, nobody has ever been convinced to look inside this box. Actually, I should probably do it myself. Just out of curiosity.

This debate is difficult for me, because the main authors of these studies, i.e. Prof. Gąssowski and Prof. Piasecki, are no longer alive. However, science is not about sticking to existing judgments, but about searching for the truth. Nicolaus Copernicus himself, was always guided by these principles. He would probably applaud the efforts to establish the facts regarding the Frombork remains, that were reburied with great pomp and the participation of hundreds of faithful and the highest local authorities, under the leadership of the Primate of Poland Józef Kowalczyk, in the cathedral, on Saturday, May 22, 2010. The recent Olsztyn debate among our group of experts proved a great success at the Copernican Congress. Summing up, Prof. Michał Kokowski emphasized that "no conclusive evidence has been presented that the skull found in Frombork Cathedral belonged to Nicolaus Copernicus."

Let's end on a positive note: it could have turned out that "Copernicus was a woman". After all, anthropology can also prove such claims.

Well, indeed. For example, in the case of the remains of Witkacy [the Polish artist and writer], which were solemnly buried on April 14, 1988, in Pęksowy Brzyzek, antropology showed that they were the bones of a woman. The alleged "Kochanowski's skull" has also been assessed in a similar way. But that's material for another story.

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: May 22, 2010. Ceremony of the reburial of the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus in the Frombork Cathedral. Photo: PAP/Adam Warżawa
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