Discovered the Remains of Medieval Soldier Along With Sword and Knives

Archaeological discoveries are sometimes made while work of a different kind is underway.

Take, for example, the wooden Dubingiai Bridge in Lithuania, over Lake Vilnius.Two years ago, divers were checking the stability of the bridges wooden supports beneath the water’s surface.

Dubingiai bridge in Lithuania

Work to replace the wooden beams with metal ones has been ongoing for several years. To the team’s surprise, they found a medieval soldier’s remains, along with the weapons he likely had on his person when he died.

Archaeologists were called in. A team from Klaipeda University soon arrived, led by archaeologist Elena Pranckenaite. The remains were removed from layers of silt and sand and forwarded to the Faculty of Medicine at the Vilnius University. The artifacts, among them an iron sword, were sent to the Lithuanian National Museum for cleaning and preservation.

The soldier, whose remains are at least 500 years old, was in his mid-twenties, experts say. At the time, they could not confirm how he died; however, this is the first time in Lithuania a body may have been dropped in the lake after he perished in combat. Soldiers were often buried where they fell, or close to a battle site, but never before had one been found underwater.

The body was, of course, much diminished by its time underwater, yet the skeleton was in “remarkably good shape,” confirmed Pranckenaite.

The artifacts found, however, were well preserved. In addition to the sword, divers found two knives with wooden handles; a leather belt with its buckle intact, and a pair of leather boots which still had spurs attached. These items too were in surprisingly good condition Pranckenaite said when announcing the news of the important discoveries.

Divers excavate the medieval remains and weapons from the bottom of Lake Asveja, near the Dubingiai Bridge. (Image credit: Photo by G. Krakauskas)

The current wooden bridge was constructed in 1934. Before it was built, a bridge in its place dated back to the 17th, or perhaps even the  16th century. It was the likely route to a nearby castle, called Dubingiai. According to Pranckenaite, the castle sat atop a hill close to the shore of Lake Vilnius.

She suspected that the soldier may have been part of a regiment defending the castle, or involved in another military skirmish in the area.

“We hope to tell this (medieval soldier’s)  story in at least a year,” she said in April of 2020. But so far, further details, like cause of death, have not been released.

Nonetheless, while details about the soldier’s fate and reasons for being on the lake bottom have not been made clear, teams of specialists continue examining and testing the remains and artifacts.

The Dubingiai Bridge is one of the only remaining wooden bridges still used in Lithuania today. Replacing its poles and beams with safer and more secure metal has been an ongoing project overseen by the Ministry of Transport and Communication..

Their workers have joined efforts with local divers to assess the safety of bridge supports, and replace them gradually with stronger, more enduring materials.

Divers uncovered the remains while inspecting a bridge over the lake in need of repair. An earlier bridge on the same site dates to the 16th or 17th century, possibly during the time of the soldier’s death

“Finding the soldier’s remains was a big surprise,” Pranckenaite acknowledged, but she hastened to add that it was a wonderful one. It isn’t common that remains that are hundreds of years old, dating to medieval times, are found in such good condition.

The cooperation of all the team members involved – archaeologists, anthropologists, and local divers – fostered the quick retrieval of the discoveries, and their removal to the appropriate agencies for testing.

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Whenever the university is finished analyzing the remains, museum staff will no doubt display what they can and tell visitors a cohesive narrative of what may have happened. Did he die in battle? Did he die from disease? Even in the 16th century, it wasn’t common for young men in their 20s to die of anything other than fighting, so that seems the most likely answer. For now!