The Associated Press and Agence France Presse report that a team of Polish archaeologists have discovered the remains of three grand masters of the Teutonic Knights, a religious order who ruled over much of that country in the Later Middle Ages.
"Taking everything into account, we see that we are dealing with Teutonic Knights grand masters," Bogumil Wisniewski, an archaeologist who spearheaded the search, told The Associated Press. "We are 95, 96 percent sure it is them."
Wisniewski said his team was convinced the men were Werner von Orseln, who led the knights from 1324-1330, Ludolf Koenig (1342-1345), and Heinrich von Plauen (1410-1413).
The three skeletons were discovered in May 2007 in a crypt under the cathedral in Kwidzyn in northern Poland -- formerly known by the German name Marienwerder -- along with pieces of silk and ornate brooches, some of which were painted in gold, which were a sign of high religious rank. Studies on the wood of the coffins confirmed that they were from the right period.
DNA tests matched their age to that of the death age of the three grand masters. They also revealed temporary malnutrition in one of the skeletons that could match the 10-year imprisonment of von Plauen.
While Wisniewski acknowledged he could only be completely certain of the identities "if I met each face-to-face and he told me his name," he said several other indicators supported the find, including wall paintings in the cathedral showing the three grand masters and historic documents saying that von Orseln and Koenig were buried there. The order ruled in the area until early 16th century.
Wojciech Weryk, coordinator for city development and promotion, said the remains will be returned to the crypt and displayed under a special glass shield, so visitors can see them. "This is such a valuable historic finding that we should show it," Weryk said.
The Teutonic Knights' order was founded in the Holy Land in 1190, during the Third Crusade. Despite its name, its members came from a handful of European regions, and not only German-speaking areas.
In 1226 the Polish Duke Konrad of Mazovia invited the knights to help him conquer the pagan population of neighbouring Prussia.
The order gradually took control of large stretches of the Baltic coast, establishing a state with its capital at Marienburg -- today's Malbork in northern Poland. The knights fought a string of successful military campaigns against their neighbours.
But their power declined after they were defeated by an army of Poles and Lithuanians in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, which is still seen as a key moment in the history of both peoples.