Born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published some poetry as a young man, but soon laid his pen aside to join the Spanish military. While fighting Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), he was shot and badly wounded, losing the use of his left hand. He continued his military service, however, and in 1575 was captured by the Turks and enslaved in Algiers for four years. A ransom was paid, and Cervantes finally returned to Spain, where he resumed his writing career.
Though he published his first novel, the pastoral romance “La Galatea,” in 1585, and later wrote several plays, Cervantes didn’t hit his stride until 1605, when he published the first volume of “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.” In doing so, he created one of the more indelible characters in modern literature: Don Quixote, the elderly man who believes himself to be a brave knight, setting out on his own series of chivalric quests (with his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza, by his side).
Though “Don Quixote” was an immediate success, and became the world’s first bestseller, it didn’t make Cervantes wealthy, as authors didn’t earn royalties for their work at the time. When he died in April 1619 at the age of 69, Cervantes was buried in an unmarked grave at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians at his own request; the Trinitarian religious order had helped pay his ransom when he was taken prisoner. In the centuries after his death, Cervantes’ reputation has only grown in stature, and many have credited him with writing the first modern novel.
In April 2014, a group of some 36 scientists and other experts took on the task of searching for the author’s long-lost tomb on the grounds of the Madrid convent. Using ground-penetrating radar, infrared cameras and 3-D scanners, the investigators located an underground crypt, and were able to identify 33 alcoves along back wall as possible locations for the remains. In January, they announced they had found fragments of a wooden casket containing human remains and bearing the initials “M.C.”, but were not able to confirm if it belonged to Cervantes.
At a news conference in Madrid earlier this week, investigators announced the discovery of fragmented human remains belonging to 16 people, a group they believe includes Cervantes and his wife, Catalina de Salazar. According to forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria, he and his fellow researchers will now use DNA analysis to eliminate which bones don’t belong to Cervantes. As the bones are badly deteriorated, however, and Cervantes had no known descendants, the team doesn’t hold out much hope for positive identification.
The search for Cervantes’ tomb parallels a similar search in England for the remains of King Richard III, which were found underneath a church parking lot and will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral this week. Even if they can’t conclusively identify Cervantes’ remains, the Spanish team hopes to provide a properly marked burial site for the pioneering writer, with the help of Madrid city officials and the convent’s elderly nuns. At the news conference, the investigators announced he would be reburied “with full honors” at the convent after a new tomb had been built. As Luis Avial, a georader expert on the research team, put it: “Cervantes asked to be buried there and there he should stay.” Officials hope to open the crypt to the public next year, which will mark the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death.