March 28, 2008 / 3:15 PM / 11 years ago

Schiller relatives exhumed to identify poet's skull

Flowers lay in front of the coffin of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in Weimar's Princess Crypt March 18. Scientists in former communist east Germany exhumed the corpse of revered German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a secret operation in 1970 to preserve his skeleton for all time, according to a file published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper Thursday. The find comes in the 250th anniversary year of Goethe's birth and as Weimar, where he spent much of his working life, holds celebrations as Europes current City of Culture. REUTERS/Jochen Eckel

BERLIN (Reuters) - Anthropologists have exhumed the graves of Friedrich Schiller’s family in an attempt to positively identify the skull of the German dramatist and poet and end a 180-year-old debate.

“The remains of the bodies were in good enough condition for a DNA examination,” said Egon Moehler, a spokesman for the German city of Stuttgart, where the bodies of three relatives who died in the 19th century were unearthed.

To obtain DNA samples for testing, the city has opened the final resting place of the dramatist’s eldest son, Carl, his grandson Friedrich as well as the wife of his grandson.

The tests aim to show which of two skulls belonged to Schiller, one of Germany’s most celebrated men of letters.

The mystery surrounding the skulls began in 1826, 21 years after Schiller died in Weimar, when the local mayor had 23 skulls retrieved from a mass grave in which the poet was buried. Many eminent people at that time were buried in mass graves.

The mayor identified the largest skull as Schiller’s and it was brought to the home of his contemporary Goethe, who wrote a poem about it, according to German scholar Albrecht Schoene.

In 1911, another skull was disinterred from the mass grave which researchers claimed was the real one. A long debate amongst academics, historians, medics and anthropologists about the identity of the skulls ensued.

Anthropologists from Berlin and Freiburg initiated the project last year to match the DNA and uncover the truth.

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