Almost 400 years after Cervantes' death, a team led by Francisco Etxeberria announced Tuesday that they were confident they had found Cervantes' coffin in the crypt of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in the Barrio de Las Letras (Literary Quarter) in Madrid. Historical records indicated Cervantes had been buried there, but the convent had been substantially rebuilt since. (Etxeberria, incidentally, performed the autopsy on former Chilean President Gen. Salvador Allende, confirming he had committed suicide.)
At a news conference in Madrid on Tuesday, Etxeberria said that while there was no mathematical proof or DNA test available to completely verify the findings, there were "many coincidences and no discrepancies" in the examination of "Osario 32," a common grave in the crypt that contained the remains of 16 people.
"We have Cervantes, represented in some form in this group of bones that are unfortunately very degraded and very fragmented," Etxeberria told national television.
The search for Cervantes' coffin -- using radar -- began last year, funded by the Madrid City Council. It first mapped more than 30 burial cavities in the walls and nearly 5 meters beneath the floor of the church. Mass spectrometry dated fragments of wood and cloth found in these cavities to the 17th century, an encouraging but far from conclusive development.
One crumbling coffin found in January had the initials "M C" hammered in nail heads, along with a jumble of skeletal remains. Even then Exteberria urged caution, but further research has narrowed the odds.
The forensic team had been hoping that some of those remains would positively identify Cervantes, who suffered gunshot wounds in the chest and left hand at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. But they are not in sufficiently good shape, and some of the remains found may be of Cervantes' wife, Catalina de Salazar. Nor will DNA analysis be much help, for there are no known descendants of Cervantes.
Catalina was not Cervantes' first partner. As a teenager he ran away from home with a barmaid, Josefina de Perez, before enlisting with the Spanish Navy. It was only in the 1580s that he started to write, publishing "La Galatea" in 1585 and his most famous work, "Don Quixote," in 1605 -- or to give its full title, "The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha."
But "Don Quixote" would hardly be noticed in Cervantes' lifetime, and he was almost penniless when he died, having joined the Third Order of St. Francis in his declining years. He knew he was dying when he wrote in the prologue of a posthumously published novel, "Perhaps the time may come when I mend again this broken thread and say what words fail me here and what needed to be said. Farewell, waggish jokes; farewell, wittiness; farewell, merry friends, for I am dying and longing soon to see you, happy in the life to come."
Cervantes was buried on April 23,1616 -- in the same week William Shakespeare died.
There are now plans to reinter Cervantes at the convent and build a new entrance to the crypt in time for the 400th anniversary of Cervantes' death next year. Tyler Fisher, a lecturer in Hispanic studies at Royal Holloway College in London, says that such exhumations "ignite public attention, inspire re-readings, and invest an all-but-forgotten corner of the city with a renewed, imaginative depth."
Cervantes might enjoy all the attention. Many literary critics say he was not aware of his own genius. John Ormsby, a scholar and translator of Cervantes' work in the 19th century, wrote of "Don Quixote," "Never was a great work so neglected by its author."