In spring 2004, at the meeting of the Scientific Council of the Frombork-based Baltic Research Centre, Jerzy Gąssowski received an interesting challenge - find the remains of Nicolas Copernicus.
To be sure, something was known of his death. He had died in Poland at age 70, and he was buried at his church somewhere, but he died while his work was being printed so the man who theorized that the sun, rather than the Earth, is at the center of the universe, was not yet famous enough to merit a monument. But the provost of the Frombork metropolitan church, bishop Doctor Jacek Jezierski, did not think the job impossible.
He believed they could at least narrow down the location and, once that was done, use modern forensics techniques to get a match. Using 'georadar' Gąssowski and his team were able to narrow down the location, the Holy Cross altar of the Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral in Frombork and, since few people lived to be 70, hone in on what they believed was a match.
Reconstruction of Copernicus' face. By Dariusz Zajdel, "Zespół Badań Antroposkopijnych Centralnego Biura Kryminalistycznego Komendy Głównej Policji"
And find a match they did, in what was modestly labelled grave number 13. After careful onsite examination, they sent the skull to the Central Forensic Laboratory in Warsaw for a reconstruction of the face. Chief inspector Dariusz Zajdel, M. Sc., with extensive experience in complex anthropological studies, took up the challenge.
Skull from the grave # 13/05, age approximately 70 years. Photo D. Zajdel
Most interesting was that the self portrait of Copernicus helped solve the case. In the portrait, there is a portion of his left eyebrow noticeably absent, usually the sign of a scar, and on the skull was a double vertical scar, above the right eye socket.
Copernicus, probably a self-portrait.
To confirm their beliefs, scientists used DNA testing on two strands of hair and a tooth to identify the remains. The two strands of hair were found in Calendarium Romanum Magnum, a book by Johannes Stoeffler that was published in 1518 and that belonged to Copernicus. The tooth was from the skull found in Frombork.
"The two strands of hair found in the book have the same genome sequence as the tooth from the skull and a bone from Frombork," Swedish scientist Marie Allen from Uppsala University told journalists. The books of Copernicus were taken to Sweden during the 17th century Polish-Swedish wars and are still held by Uppsala University there.
Nicolar Copernicus died while De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was getting both acclaim and infamy. Today he is considered the father of modern astronomy for developing the heliocentric theory of the universe. RIP.
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