The remains of 2,000 men unearthed in a mass grave in Lithuania
were members of Napoleon's army that invaded Russia 190 years ago.
When bulldozers accidentally uncovered the remains at a housing
development last year, many thought they were political dissidents
executed by secret police during Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.
But Arunas Barkus, an anthropologist at the University of
Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, and a dozen other researchers were
able to determine the identity of the skeletons.
Deputy French Ambassador Olivier Poupard said the find was the
"largest and most significant" of its kind. "We've been very moved by this discovery. Suddenly,
history was more vivid. You could see it with your eyes... It's a
history so much a part of the collective French memory," he
Mr Barkus and his team spent months charting and tagging the
skeletons - then examining each individually to determine age, sex
and possible cause of death. Coins with Napoleon's image and buttons of his Grand Army were
also found at the site, making it clear the remnants were those of
the ill-fated French force.
Several bones belonged to boys as young as fifteen, probably drummers
used to signal commands to troops. Many of the skeletons were found curled up and undamaged,
suggesting they were killed by cold, not cannonballs, bullets or
bayonets. DNA tests are being done to test the theory that a lot of men
died of typhus.
With the last remains removed, a road has been built over the
site, but archaeologists will soon begin searching again, saying at
least 10,000 other skeletons could be nearby.
Since Napoleon's soldiers came from all over his empire, there
was never a question of returning the remains to France, said Mr
Poupard. Most of the remains await ceremonial burial in October, and a
monument paid for by France will be unveiled later.
"This is an occasion, especially with Lithuania on the verge of
entering the European Union and the Nato alliance, to show
reconciliation between former enemies that are now partners," Mr
Grand Army rout