Mass Graves from the period of the Napoleonic Wars

In 2006, during rescue archaeology work in the territory of the town of Kaliningrad (former Königsberg), a team led by A.I. Kozlov discovered and investigated 12 group burials of soldiers and officers of France’s Grande Armée, which were of particular interest for anthropologists and military historians specializing in the period of the Napoleonic Wars.
The mass graves were on a small rampart between the Steindamm city-gate and the western bastion adjacent to it. The burials were in flat-grave pits measuring between 3 and 5 m2 and each containing between several dozen and 150 or more individuals. On the floor of some of the pits burials were found which contained wooden coffins. The people buried in those were probably individuals of special status — they could have been high-ranking officers or generals. The excavations brought to light a total of more than 590 deceased. Taking into account scattered bone material as well, it is likely that at least 800 individuals had been buried here, mainly soldiers and officers from various units of Napoleon’s army, including foreign ones.
The fact that most of the deceased had belonged to the Grande Armée could be assumed on the basis of the grave goods. The most useful sources of information were the buttons from military uniforms bearing depictions specific to certain kinds of troops, regiments or battalions, which made it possible to determine the country from which the deceased came. At this site soldiers and officers from French regiments of Guards, Hussars and Chasseurs had been buried and also from infantry of the line and artillery-men. Among the deceased, representatives of foreign units were found, who had been fighting on France’s side: from the 2nd Swiss and 4th Westphalian infantry regiments and Italian auxiliary troops and Westphalian Guards. A unique find was a well-preserved shako from the 4th Infantry Regiment of the Kingdom of Westphalia. No less interesting was the military footwear — leather shoes with soles attached using nails and leather cavalry boots. Military buckles were found, rifle flints, bullets, Russian and French coins and also more personal items: cross-pendants, fragments of tobacco pipes and a bone cigarette-holder. Finds of coins — five silver francs and 20 gold ones minted in 1811 and 1812 confirmed the date of the burials — namely the autumn and winter of 1812/13, the time of the catastrophic defeat of the remnants of the Grande Armée.
A joint Russian-French laboratory, known as “Königsberg 1812” was set up to process and study the materials found in the burials. The team included specialists from the Institute of Archaeology and Marseille’s Mediterranean University — not just professional anthropologists and archaeologists but also forensic anthropologists, dentists, geneticists and molecular biologists.
The arrangement of the burials sheds light on the nature of the military cemetery, which was attached to a field hospital. A major role in the fate of the military personnel buried at this site was that played by the typhus epidemic which was raging in Königsberg at that time and which wiped out not just the remnants of the army but also the city’s civilian population. Ninety-six percent of the buried individuals were men, for the most part aged between 18 and 25. A few women and children were also among the deceased buried at the site, probably civilians from Königsberg who had died from typhus.
The length of the deceased duly measured — among whom there were some very tall individuals of between 1.75 and 1.80 m — makes it possible to conclude that the individuals discovered were representatives of élite troops, who were recruited according to special requirements.
The international team of scholars was able to investigate the causes of death of these soldiers from the French army. Data from palaeo-DNA analysis made it possible to identify individuals who had suffered from typhus. In their study of the bones the anthropologists identified wounds to the head and face made by cold steel and various consequences of wounds to limbs. They were able to identify specific wounds typical for infantrymen and cavalrymen. When they assessed methods used to treat wounds, they found cases of amputation required for various reasons, including frostbite.
The range of materials obtained by carrying out this research in Kaliningrad constitutes an invaluable archaeological resource, which has made it possible to create a unique data-base for the anthropology of the multi-ethnic population of Europe in the era of the Napoleonic Wars.

A.N. Khokhlov and A.P. Buzhilova

Digital publication