Mass graves being uncovered by archaeologists in Prague’s Karlín

Mass graves uncovered in Karlín

Teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are currently excavating on the site of the former military cemetery in Prague’s Karlín district. The site was in use from the second half of the 1700s to the end of the 19th century and excavators believe that many of the remains belong to men who were casualties of the Napoleonic Wars.

Today one of Prague’s bustling office centres, Karlín used to be the site of a large dormitory for war invalids. Traces of this military past can not only be seen by the still standing Invalidovna building, but also underground, where many of the soldiers found their final resting place.

Mass graves uncovered in Karlín | Photo: Jaroslav Hroch,  Czech Radio

Their remains can be found around Pernerova street, where a team of archaeologists has been excavating from April of this year. Hundreds of bodies in individual and mass graves have since been found on the burial site which covered a space of around 24,000 metres, says archaeologist Martin Vyšohlíd.

“We have uncovered between 10 to 20 mass graves. However, these are graves of different sizes. Some contain just 20 bodies, but in front of us you can see a large ditch about 10 metres long and 3 to 4 metres wide. There are undoubtedly the remains of hundreds of people lying in that ditch.”

Archaeologists believe that thousands of the men buried here were moved to Prague as casualties after the battles of Dresden and Kulm, where Napoleonic France clashed with the forces of the Sixth Coalition shortly before the famous Battle of the Nations. Mr Vyšohlíd says that the city was overflowing with wounded at the time.

“They didn’t just lie in hospitals but also in the streets and in private flats. They were being treated. There were attempts to try and save as many of them as possible, but there was of course little capacity in Prague’s hospitals, so it was hard. Soon epidemics such as typhus and cholera broke out. Civilians who were being treated in Prague died too.”

While many of the remains are believed to have belonged to Napoleonic era soldiers, archaeologists have so far been surprised by the relatively few cut marks found on bones, something that would be expected among battle casualties. It is thought that cholera was also responsible for claiming many of the soldiers’ lives, not just wounds.

Mass graves uncovered in Karlín | Photo: Jaroslav Hroch,  Czech Radio

Used as a burial site for more than a century, some of the remains also show that the individuals lying here suffered from more long-term ailments such as syphilis. Bones belonging to women were also dug up on the site.

The nature of the graves means that there are not many valuables to be found among the remains. Nevertheless, archaeologists have found small crucifixes, rosaries, rings, fragments of burial stones and earrings belonging to the wives of officers. Some of the individual graves for the commissioned ranks even contained military orders, says Mr Vyšohlíd.

“These were not usually buried with the individual as they would be kept by their relatives as memories. We have found about five military orders from the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. One interesting find that we came across in our previous dig shows how important it was that the officer looked the part. We find for example dentures among those who were buried there.”

Mass graves uncovered in Karlín | Photo: Jaroslav Hroch,  Czech Radio

Excavations on the location were initiated before the construction of a new office block. The archaeological team is finishing its work on the location for this year, but is likely to return to the site in 2023.

Those remains that were found in full will be sent to an anthropologic depository at the National Museum. Meanwhile, the many bones that cannot be pieced together will be buried at the Olšany Cemetery in Prague.

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Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Tereza Janouškovcová
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