Construction on a Russian water pipeline unearthed a mass grave containing the bodies of over 1,800 German soldiers. The grave, located in Volgograd — formerly known as Stalingrad — was originally thought to contain the remains of 800 soldiers. Forensic anthropologists, historians and local authorities were shocked when their exploration of the site revealed the staggering number of buried bodies. Russian authorities are currently working with the German War Graves Commission on the excavation, identification and burial of the remains.
The Battle of Stalingrad was the largest and deadliest conflict in World War II. The 1943 battle, in which German and Russian forces fought for control of the city of Stalingrad, saw 2 million soldiers killed, injured or captured, many of whom are still considered missing or unidentified. In the district of Angarskij, a gorge served as a makeshift burial ground for a Soviet army that was eager to avoid the threat of epidemic. “Such was the fate of an army which Hitler had proudly proclaimed could conquer the very gates of Heaven itself,” according to historical author Michael Jones.
Within the mass grave, anthropologists found the remains of 150 military dog tags. While 50 tags were legible, the remainder were too degraded to provide any identification and will be sent for further analysis. Forensic anthropologists will rely on forensic techniques, including DNA analysis, for positive identification of the corporeal remains.
More than 75 years after the Battle of Stalingrad, authorities are hoping the identification and proper burial of missing loved ones can finally provide closure for the victims’ families. “Usually the relatives are relieved to know what happened and pleased the body of their grandpa or uncle will be buried. It is very important,” said a representative of the German War Graves Commission. According to the same spokesman, the mass grave in Angarskij wasn’t the first to be found in Russia: each year three to four mass gravesites are discovered.
The recent advances in DNA technology that have helped forensic anthropologists identify missing soldiers can also be used in the investigations of violent or cold-case crimes. In Oklahoma, DNA evidence — along with historical gravesite data and witness testimonies — is currently helping scientists identify the victims of a 1921 race riot, and across the U.S., unidentified remains of Korean War soldiers are being identified via a new, specialized technique for analyzing degraded DNA.