An archaeologist said the remains of the czar's son and heir to the throne at last may have been found. Russian prosecutors announced Friday that they have reopened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the last Russian czar and his family.
The announcement of the reopened investigation, while a routine matter, signaled that government may be taking the claims - announced Thursday by Yekaterinburg researcher Sergei Pogorelov - seriously.
In comments broadcast on NTV, Pogorelov said bones found in a burned area of ground near Yekaterinburg belong to a boy and a young woman roughly the ages of Czar Nicholas II's 13-year-old son, Alexei, and a daughter whose remains also never have been found.
Yekaterinburg is the Urals Mountain city where the czar, his wife and children were held prisoner and then shot in 1918.
If confirmed, the find would solve a persistent mystery and fill in a missing chapter in the story of the doomed family, victims of the violent 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ushered in more than 70 years of communist rule.
The find comes almost a decade after remains identified as those of Nicholas, his wife and three of their daughters were reburied in a ceremony in the imperial-era capital of St. Petersburg. The ceremony, however, was shadowed by statements of doubt - including from within the Russian Orthodox Church - about their authenticity.
On Friday, a church official voiced what appeared to skepticism about the find.
"I would like to hope that the examination will be more thorough and detailed than the examination of the so-called 'Yekaterinburg remains,' which the Church did not acknowledge as the remains of members of czar's family," Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate's External Church Relations department, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
The spot where the remains were found appears to correspond to a site described in writing by Yakov Yurovsky, the leader of the family's killers, said Pogorelov, an archaeologist at a regional center for the preservation of historical and cultural monuments in Yekaterinburg.
"An anthropologist has determined that the bones belong to two young individuals - a young male he found was aged roughly 10-13 and a young woman about 18-23," he told NTV television by telephone.
Nicholas abdicated in 1917 as revolutionary fervor swept Russia, and he and his family were detained. The next year, they were sent to Yekaterinburg, where a Bolshevik firing squad executed them on July 17, 1918.
Historians say guards lined up and shot Nicholas; his wife, Alexandra; their five children and four attendants in the basement of a nobleman's house. The bodies were loaded onto a truck and initially dumped in a mine shaft but were later moved, according to most accounts.
The Bolsheviks mutilated and hid the bodies because they did not want the remains - especially Alexei's - to become a shrine or rallying point for anti-Bolshevik forces.
Parts of the bodies were exhumed in 1991 - the year the Soviet Union fell apart - and reburied in St. Petersburg, in 1998. Scientific tests indicated the bones of Anastasia, a daughter some have said survived the shooting, were among the remains buried.
But two skeletons have never been found: those of Alexei and a daughter scientists believe was Maria.
The Russian church canonized Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexei and his four sisters as martyrs in 2000. But the church - citing the two missing corpses and questions over whether the bones were actually those of the royal family - chose to scale down its participation in the 1998 ceremony.
Historian Edvard Radzinsky, author of a book about the last czar, told NTV that if the remains are confirmed as those of Alexei and a sister, it would prove the authenticity of the earlier find by providing "documentary affirmation of what is written in Yurovsky's notes."
According to NTV, a 1934 report based on Yurovsky's words indicated that the bodies of nine victims were doused with sulfuric acid and buried along a road, while those of Alexei and a sister were burned and left in a pit nearby.
Archaeologists discovered shards of a ceramic container of sulfuric acid as well as nails, metal strips from a wooden box, and bullets of various caliber. They also found the remains in a weeks-long search using metal detectors and metal rods as probes, not by digging.
Experts will be conducting molecular and other tests on the new remains, Nikolai Nevolin, a Yekaterinburg regional forensics scientist, said in televised comments Friday.
A representative of the Romanovs - the royal family whose rule was ended by the Revolution - urged caution, given past controversies.
"It is necessary to treat these findings very cautiously," Ivan Artseshchevsky told NTV from London.