Widely considered to be the forerunner of the modern novel, Don Quixote is thought to have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide making it the second best selling book after the Bible. In fact, so great is his influence that Spanish is often referred to as “the language of Cervantes”.
But while William Shakespeare, who coincidentally died within a day of Cervantes – April 23rd, 1614 – was afforded fame and fortune in his lifetime and a rather elaborate memorial above his tomb at his local church in Stratford-upon-Avon on his death, the bones of Miguel de Cervantes have lain, almost forgotten, in an unmarked grave.
Until now, that is.
A team of archaeologists announced recently that they believe they have located the grave of Spain´s most celebrated writer – in an alcove in the crypt of the church of a convent in the centre of Madrid´s historic literary quarter, the Barrio de Las Letras.
With much fanfare the team of researchers revealed that they had discovered a coffin that was “very likely” to contain the remains of the creator of the delusional knight-errant and his hapless sidekick Sancho Panza.
They knew this, they said, because embossed on the side of the old decayed wooden coffin were his initials crudely made out with metal tacks.
"Remains of caskets were found, wood, rocks, some bone fragments, and indeed one of the fragments of a board of one of the caskets had the letters 'M.C.' formed in tacks," forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria, who is leading the search, told a news conference last Saturday.
This discovery came after what could almost be described as a quixotic quest in its own right. After years of negotiation with Madrid City Hall and Church authorities to get funding and access to the site, the historian Fernando Prado was finally given the green light for his project last April.
Ground penetrating radar, infrared cameras, 3D scanners were all employed to help trace the likely resting place of Cervantes, who requested in his will that he be buried in the convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, a religious order that helped pay a ransom to release him from slavery after he was captured by Moorish pirates.
The project has raised a few eyebrows – not least at the wisdom of spending some €100,000 of city funds on finding a grave that everyone knows is there.
It has always been known that Cervantes was buried somewhere within the walls of the convent, although the exact location of his grave had been lost in the annals of the time as the church building was extended and remodeled and records were mislaid.
And there was no mystery surrounding the demise of Cervantes, whose death was recorded as a result of cirrhosis of the liver.
He lived to what in those times would have been considered the fairly grand old age of 68 by which time he had only six teeth in his head and a back stooped over with degenerative joint disease.
This information, which Cervantes revealed in one of his last known letters, and the fact that he suffered from several distinctive war injuries will help the next stage of the process – to definitely determine whether the bones belong to the author.
Cervantes was shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand during the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto, he survived the injuries but was left with a withered arm and scarred torso, characteristics which should prove invaluable to forensic archaeologists.
He had been forced to flee Spain and take refuge in Italy when he was only 21 following a dual but was there enlisted as a soldier for the Spanish-led fleet defending the Mediterranean from Ottoman invaders.
Authorities have yet to announce what plan, if any, they have for the great man´s earthly remains but what physical memorial could ever possibly rival that of his extraordinary literary legacy?