May 1, 2014

Searching for Cervantes; scientists in Spain use radar to find his centuries-old grave


A bust of Cervantes in Sevilla, Spain. Image via Wikimedia

A bust of Cervantes in Sevilla, Spain.
Image via Wikimedia

When Miguel de Cervantes died in 1616, he was penniless and his body was full of bullets. As Jorge Sainz at The Associated Press explains, although Don Quixote was a success, it certainly didn’t make Cervantes wealthy or famous during his lifetime. In fact, he was better known in Spain for his misfortune in battle.

Cervantes had been wounded in battle and spent years captive in Algiers. He had been seized by Turkish pirates who boarded the ship on which he was returning to Spain after fighting in a war against the Ottoman Empire.

The Trinitarian order negotiated his release and helped pay a ransom that ruined Cervantes’ family.

Cervantes was compelled to live as an errand-runner for the convent to give thanks for his deliverance.

The writer now thought of as the father of the modern novel was buried on the grounds of a tiny convent near his home in Madrid, and by the time Don Quixote had made him famous, nobody could remember exactly where the unmarked grave was. But forensic scientists in Madrid hope to use ground-penetrating radar to find the exact location. The BBC explains how:

Forensic scientists say the ground and walls of the oldest part of the convent would be the focus of the search, using ground-penetrating equipment to map objects under the earth.

“The radar cannot tell you whether it is the body of the writer, but it can indicate the place of burial,” the expert leading the search, Luis Avial, told reporters on Friday.

“The geo-radar can tell us that location… then comes the delicate work,” he added, referring to the exhumation and identification process.

The estimated cost of the operation is 100,000 euros ($138,000; £82,352).

The scientists believe they have reason to be optimistic. From the AP, “According to Fernando Prado, the historian in charge of the project, just five people, including a child and Cervantes, are buried there. ‘We know he is buried there,’ Prado said. ‘History teaches us that churches never throw bones away. They might relocate them under roofs and vaults if necessary, but no one would dare throw them into a common ossuary.'”

Anya Van Wagtendok at PBS points out another reason they think they’ll be successful. “Francisco Etxeberria, a forensic anthropologist involved in the search, does not think identifying the remains will be difficult. Cervantes was distinctive looking, a self-described toothless hunchback who lost use of his left arm while serving as a soldier during a war against the Ottoman Turks.”

Cervantes published Don Quixote in 1605, and we’re approaching the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616. Of course, now his reputation is towering and the Spanish language is sometimes even referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes.” So what will become of the remains if they do find them? According to Prado, “He will be re-buried there, but with a plaque to remember his name and who he is.”


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.