Grave business: Conservationists find king’s remains exposed under broken coffin lid as they open up sarcophagus for first time in 100 years
The sarcophagi of three of Poland’s rulers have been opened in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral revealing the coffins for the first time in over 100 years as part of conservation work.
The coffins of Poland’s Saxon king Augustus II the Strong as well as Władysław IV from the Swedish Vasa dynasty and his Habsburg wife Cecylia Renata have been sent to a specialist workshop in Tychy, Silesia, to undergo restoration.
When the sarcophagus of Augustus II was opened earlier this month, those present were shocked to see that the tin lid of the internal coffin was completely destroyed leaving the king’s remains exposed.
This has created a unique opportunity for experts to carry out archaeological and anthropological research on the king’s remains.
Father Sochacki from Wawel Cathedral told TFN: “After opening the external copper coffin of Augustus II, we saw that there was an internal coffin made of tin that was about two-thirds destroyed.
“It had a lot of holes and the lid had been completely destroyed by the temperature and humidity in the crypt.”
The fact that the lid has been destroyed has opened up the chance to study the remains.
Father Sochacki said: “We normally never attempt to get to the actual bones of any of the rulers at rest in the crypt because they are normally in a double coffin, sometimes made from wood, sometimes from copper or tin.
“The anthropological and archaeological research is only being carried out for this reason.”
The archaeological work will study the bones of the king as well as his robes and funerary goods that were placed in the coffin with him. One photo taken by the specialists from Tychy sensationally shows the king’s crown being removed from the external, copper coffin.
History books suggest that the Saxon king died due to gangrene, so researchers will try to determine whether this is true.
The opening of the sarcophagus meant that the bones as well as all the royal regalia and robes had to be transferred to a replacement coffin.
“The remains are being held with full respect in the crypt under the Zygmunt chapel,” Father Sochacki said.
Augustus II the Strong was king of Poland from 1709 to 1733. He earned his nickname due to his great physical strength.
He lived up to his name by breaking horseshoes with his bare hands and engaging in fox tossing. He is also notable for having conceived a very large number of children.
During his reign, he ignored the affairs of his kingdom, which lead to a weakening of the state, ending finally in Poland being partitioned by neighbouring powers.
The two other sarcophagi opened this month date back to an earlier century. Władysław IV was king of Poland from 1642 to 1648. The richly gilded copper coffins of the king and that of his wife Cecelia Renata were found to be intact when the sarcophagi were opened and they have been sent for restoration work.
The reign of Władysław IV is remembered in Polish history as one of relative stability. He successfully defended the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and promoted religious tolerance. The timing of his death in 1648 can be considered fortuitous, coming just before the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the same year and the Swedish Deluge that rampaged through the kingdom in 1655-60.
The opening of the sarcophagi is part of a strategic project that has been underway for three years. The project also includes work on the crypt itself.
“The plan is to improve the conditions in the crypt in terms of temperature and humidity so that our kings can rest there for further centuries,” Father Sochacki informed.
If work goes ahead as planned, the restored coffins will be ready by the end of the November this year.
If conservation experts agree, the restored interior coffin of Augustus II will be put on view for visitors for a short time. It will later be placed back inside its outer coffin, which will be housed back inside the stone sarcophagus.