Over 1,000 skeletons discovered during renovation of Kutná Hora “bone church”

Photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek

Archaeologists carrying out research at the famous 14th century “bone church” near the Czech town of Kutná Hora have announced a unique discovery. While excavating the site in the vicinity of the medieval ossuary, they came across 34 mass graves with 1,200 skeletons, most of which belong to the victims of the Black Death and famine. Experts say it is the biggest find of its kind in Europe.

Photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek
The ossuary located in the basement of a Roman Catholic Church in Sedlec on the outskirts of Kutná Hora is perhaps the country’s most macabre attraction.

The space houses the bones of an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people who died during the mid-14th century plague and in the subsequent Hussite Wars.

The bones are arranged into all sorts of formations, including a chandelier, a coat of arms of the local aristocratic rulers the Schwarzenbergs and four large bell-shaped mounds.

Since 2014, the ossuary has been undergoing extensive renovation, part of which is archaeological and anthropological research. Archaeologist Jan Frolík is one of the members of the research team:

Photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek
“The archaeological survey was launched in 2016 and until this year, we have been digging around the ossuary. The most significant discovery we have made are mass graves of the victims of a famine in 1318 and the plague in 1348.

“It could be compared to the burial ground in East Smithfield in London, which has some 500 skeletons. We have discovered around 600 plague victims and 600 victims of famine, so altogether 1,200 skeletons.

“This year we also started research in the interior. Below the first pyramid we found five mass graves, which are even older. So when the ossuary was built, they had no idea that the graves were there.”

The renovation of the medieval church is expected to take at least 10 years and so far it has cost around 45 million crowns. Although the anthropological research is still at its beginning, Jan Frolík says the skeletal remains have already unveiled a lot about the population of Kutná Hora at the time:

“They could be characterised as a mining population, because there is a significant prevalence of men over women.

“The ratio of adults and children is around fifty-fifty, which is a common population make up. But the 30-percent prevalence of men shows that there were new miners constantly flowing into the town and that it was apparently a very dangerous trade.

Photo: ČTK/Josef Vostárek
“Otherwise I would say it was a typical medieval society, judging by the injuries and illnesses reflected in the bones. So there were common fractures of limbs, some of them badly grown together. As for the illnesses that can be detected this way, we have recorded tuberculosis and meningitis.”

The ossuary in Sedlec belongs among the Czech Republic’s most popular attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Despite the reconstruction, it has remained open to visitors, with only some parts temporarily off-limits due to safety reasons.