Around 1119, in the midst of Christian Crusades to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, a French knight named Hugues de Payens formed a small military order dedicated to defending pilgrims as they traveled from West to East.
Known today as the Knights Templar, the group (and various legends surrounding its history) has captured public imagination for centuries. As Patrick Masters, a film studies scholar at the University of Portsmouth, wrote for the Conversation in 2019, 13th-century epics and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code alike link the order to the mythical Holy Grail—albeit with little supporting evidence.
Over the years, physical traces of the organization’s existence have yielded insights on its actual role in medieval society. In villages across the West Pomeranian region of Poland, for instance, 13th-century Gothic buildings created by the knights upon their return from the Holy Land testify to the order’s lasting influence.
Now, reports Małgosia Krakowska for CNN, an ongoing archaeological dig at a Knights Templar chapel in a remote Polish village of about 100 residents is offering up an array of exciting new discoveries.
Last fall, a research team using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) uncovered a number of crypts, as well as the possible remains of an underground passageway or tunnel, while conducting excavations at the chapel of Saint Stanislaus in Chwarszczany.
“According to legends and medieval documents, there was a well in the vicinity of the chapel,” Przemysław Kołosowski, the lead archaeologist working on the site, tells CNN. “Rumor has it that the well served as an entrance to a secret tunnel. This still requires an exhaustive archeological investigation.”
As Jakub Pikulik reported for Polish newspaper Gazeta Lubuska last year, renovations and archaeological work at the site have been ongoing since 2004. Kołosowski’s team commenced work in July 2019, scanning the chapel and surrounding fields with the help of a hundred or so volunteers.
An excavation expected to unearth a medieval fortress yielded no substantial finds from the period. But archaeologists did discover centuries-old cobblestones, the walls of an 18th-century distillery, Bronze Age pottery and iron nails, and a 1757 coin likely left behind by Russian troops stationed nearby during the Seven Years’ War.
Inside the chapel, archaeologists investigating a small depression beneath the stone floors found seven vaulted crypts. Per a statement from OKM, the German manufacturer of the GPR technology used by the researchers, these underground crypts “cannot be dated back to Templar times.” Instead, Gazeta Lubuska notes, the crypts were likely constructed later, only to be emptied during renovations in the second half of the 19th century.
Built on the site of an older Romanesque temple in the second half of the 13th century, the red-brick Chwarszczany chapel was “both a place of worship and a defensive fortification,” according to Sarah Cascone of artnet News.
At the time, the Knights Templar wielded significant power in western Poland, local historian Marek Karolczak tells CNN.
“Back in those days, the appearance of Knights Templar on this soil was a popular trend,” Karolczak explains. “This is the time of Crusades. Local rulers wanted to strengthen their power by inviting military orders to settle on their land and build commanderies.”
Because the Knights Templar were protected by the pope, they “enjoy[ed] papal privileges, tax breaks and lavish donations while also accruing legendary status,” reports CNN. But the group’s luck changed in the early 14th century, when Philip IV of France ordered members’ arrest, perhaps out of a desire to seize their vast wealth or assert his political dominance over the papacy, writes Mark Cartwright for Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Those arrested were tortured into giving false confessions of homosexuality and sacrilege, and in 1312, Pope Clement V officially disbanded the religious order.