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Schiller's Skulls

DW staff (ncy)
December 29, 2004

As the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Schiller's death dawns, controversy over his remains stirs again. No one knows for sure which of two skulls belonged to the 18th century poet though DNA analysis could resolve it.

Schiller (1759-1805): Where has his head gone?

One skull rests in an ornate oak coffin next to that of Schiller's friend and fellow poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in the Weimar ducal vault. The other sits in an unmarked, inconspicuous casket. Experts bicker over which skull was Schiller's.

Although DNA analysis would likely clear up the confusion, the Weimar Classics Foundation, which oversees Schiller and Goethe memorial sites in the eastern German state of Thuringia, has shown no interest in resolving the issue.

"No investigations are planned," spokeswoman Angela Jahn told Bild daily. "That wouldn't change anything anyway. We need a comparative value for an analysis, but a hair, for example, could also not be genuine."

Actually, any material upon which Schiller's DNA traces have been preserved would suffice, whether from his clothing or from a descendent, anthropologist Ursula Wittwer-Backofen told the Associated Press.

Mixed-up exhumation?

Schiller's body was buried in a mass grave in Weimar on the night of his death on May 11, 1805. But it hadn't found its final resting place. Schiller's widow intended her husband be buried in an individual grave.

Still, the plot wasn't re-opened until 1826, by which time the coffins had burst and the bodies had decomposed. Weimar Mayor Karl Leberecht Schwabe set up the 23 recovered skulls on a table, pointed to the largest one and declared, "That must be Schiller's skull."

Goethe and Schiller statue in WeimarImage: DW

Half a year later, Goethe collected the skull, which he kept on blue velvet cushion underneath a bell jar. Since December 1827 the skull and other bones attributed to Schiller have rested in the oak coffin in Weimar's ducal vault.

Hermann Welcker was the first to call the skull's authenticity into question, in 1883. Although experts agreed with the anatomist, laymen were outraged. Finally, in 1911, another exhumation of the mass grave brought forth 63 additional skulls, one of which was said to be Schiller's, according to Göttingen philologist Albrecht Schöne, who wrote a book about the mix-up. The second skull was moved to the Weimer ducal vault in 1914.

"It would certainly be embarrassing for the (Weimar Classics) Foundation, if both skulls were proven to be false," Schöne said.

Besides, the foundation is likely more concerned with the restoration of the 16th-18th century books from the Anna Amalia Library -- which was badly damaged by fire in September -- than with resolving the skull question.

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