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The Mysterious Ancient Corpse Used as a Nazi Propaganda Machine

In 1928 a major excavation project was being carried out at Prague Castle in Czechoslovakia by the National Museum of Czechoslovakia, in an effort to find the oldest part of the castle. The team was led by Ivan Borkovský, a former Ukrainian citizen who had once fought the Austro-Hungarians and escaped to the newly formed Czechoslovakia in 1920 to pursue a new life as a prominent archeologist, eventually finding his way to this dig. As the team dug up an old castle courtyard, something strange was found down there in the earth that would prove to be a mystery that has remained to this day. Here is the beginning of a story of mysterious discoveries, Nazis, a grand plan to spread propaganda, and a corpse that has baffled archeologists for years.

When the courtyard was dug up, lying down there within the tomb of earth was a skeletal corpse of a man dating back to the 10th century, one hand resting on an imposing sword of great quality, and the other outstretched towards a pair of knives nearby as if reaching for them. At the man’s feet were found the remains of a partially disintegrated wooden bucket and the disembodied head of an axe forged of iron, as well as other myriad tools including a flint-like fire striker and a razor surrounded the body, their purposes unknown. It was certainly an odd thing to find buried away under Prague Castle, and the best guess at the time was that this must have been a corpse interred as part of a burial area nearby dating back to between 800 to 1,000 AD. It was suspected that the man could have been Slavic in origin but no one knew and it was all very puzzling. The body was a total mystery and there were none other found to which it could be compared with. Somehow this stranger had come to rest here alone in the earth, with no clue as to why or even who he was. Borkovský would write up a study on the find, but choose not to publish it, which was a decision he would live to regret.

Prague Castle

In 1939, the Nazi war machine came rumbling into Prague and it was only a matter of time before they found out about the discovery of the mysterious corpse. It was a big deal for them, because the Germans had long looked for evidence to support their twisted ideology that Nordic races, and therefore the “pure” Germanic race, had occupied all of Europe since ancient times and thus this made the land rightfully theirs. The Germans believed that the mysterious corpse was obviously that of a German or Viking, therefore Nordic and a part of their grand Aryan perfect race, and this was further bolstered when they found out that Borkovský had not published his study. In the eyes of the Nazis this indicated an attempt to cover up the truth, and so they forcefully recruited the terrified Borkovský to their side, threatening to send him to a concentration camp if he did not publish a heavily edited and propaganda filled version of his study made to strongly lean towards the Viking theory. It was even proclaimed that the corpse proved that Prague Castle was of Germanic origin, built by Aryan people, and that the land it sat on belonged to them. The Nazis were essentially trying to blatantly twist and misinterpret archeological finds to make this mysterious stranger’s 1,000 year-old corpse a weapon of propaganda and rewrite history the way they saw fit for their machinations.

To add insult to injury, the Germans actively shut down Borkovskýs efforts publish a book about the discovery of the oldest Slavic pottery recovered in central Europe, as this did not line up with their idea that the land was originally that of their ancestors, not the Slavs. This propaganda machine was in full effect right up until 1945, when the Soviets usurped the Germans as the new oppressors of the Czech people, and this landed Borkovský in trouble as well, as he was seen as a Nazi sympathizer, anti-Communist, and an integral part of German propaganda efforts with regards to the mystery corpse. The only thing that kept Borkovský from being thrown into a Gulag was him back peddling and twisting the paper around to favor his new masters’ demented version of history. It would not be until he managed to flee the country that he would in 1946 finally publish his original study, which leaned towards the mystery man being a member of the early Slav Premyslid dynasty.

The mysterious skeleton

Yet, throughout all of this tug of war between nations and efforts to politically weaponize him, nobody really knew who this nameless stranger was or where he came from, and we still don’t. A big part of the mystery is that he is carrying an eclectic assortment of items, with some being obviously Viking in origin, but others from the local area and others from random foreign lands, so the man’s true nationality is hard to pin down, as is the reason for why he should have been buried under Prague Castle rather in the nearby burial grounds. The sword is particularly interesting, as it is of very high quality, likely very expensive, and the only one found like it in the region. One idea is that this was an adventurer making his way through the area, perhaps even a Viking wannabe, but he must have been important in some capacity to have been buried at the castle. Nicholas Saunders, of the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology and author of a paper on the skeleton in the journal Antiquity has said of the corpse:

The sword is especially unique as it is the only one discovered in 1,500 early medieval graves so far found in Prague Castle. Perhaps he was a Slav from a neighboring region, who had mastered Old Norse as well as Slavonic, or perhaps he regarded himself as a genuine Viking. This guy’s heterogeneous collection of objects reflected his multiple personalities, perhaps, rather than saying ‘oh he was a Viking’ or ‘oh he was a Slav.’ People invent their own identifications according to where they are in time and space, and this guy was obviously a major player – if not the major player – for a number of years.

One idea is that he was here to serve the Premyslid dynasty, who are the ones who built the castle. This might explain why he was buried in the courtyard, as this would have been an honor reserved for someone of importance. There is also the idea that he may have just happened to have been buried there before the castle was built, with the study in Antiquity saying he might have had “a widely traveled, adventurous, and belligerent existence, before being laid to rest beneath what was to become Prague Castle.” To this day no one is quite sure who this person was, or what life adventure brought him to this end in this courtyard alone, but whoever it was probably would have never suspected that a thousand years later his body would become embroiled in Nazi schemes and the political motivations of some alien future society, and it all remains a rather strange historical oddity.