Centuries ago, a settlement called Cölln formed the nucleus of what is now the German capital. However, it was absorbed by the growing city of Berlin and disappeared without a trace. Spectacular finds are helping archaeologists piece together the history of the city and its inhabitants.
What is now the metropolis of Berlin was once an area almost uninhabited, a sandy area surrounded by impenetrable swamps and forests where a Margrave and a Slavic nobleman crossed swords in this inhospitable area. There were a handful of roads, but that didn't stop tireless souls from settling in the region between Teltow and Barnim more than 800 years ago.
The German historian Wolfgang Fritze once said that «it is hard to imagine that the seemingly far-fetched plan to build a city in a highly contested and sparsely populated border area would succeed”. However, two cities were born there, one called Berlin and another Cölln, separated by the river Spree but connected by a bridge, the Mühlendamm, which remains today.
Relations between the two localities they were tense. The two were very independent and had their own town hall and mayor. The feelings of distrust they were mutual.
In 1378, when fire scorched much of Cölln, the Berliners arrogantly refused to offer assistance. However, two years later, this did not stop Cölln from helping them when Berlin itself burned.
A plague of plague I arrive. Cölln was struck by the epidemic in 1576 and in an effort to protect itself, Berlin blocked the Mühlendamm bridge and the collners were forbidden to cross it. Unfortunately for Berlin, a woman saw a dead collner next to the wall and decided to steal his jacket, introducing the plague in the city, killing 4,000 people between the two cities.
The end of the story is well known: Berlin flourished and began to be a cosmopolitan city while the once proud Cölln sank into darkness.
Impressive archaeological finds.
Until now, historians knew very little on early history of Cölln and Berlin, in part because official documents and municipal papers were destroyed by the fires of 1378 and 1380, so there is little definitive evidence of the early years of the ambitious colonies on the River Spree.
Yet impressive archaeological finds in the center of the capital they can change this. It seems that Cölln was the oldest of the two neighboring settlements. What's more, the core of what would eventually become a great city could have formed half a century earlier than was supposed to.
The Cölln center was situated in what is today Petriplatz, south of what is now Schlossplatz in Berlin's Island Museum. A church, a cemetery, a fishmonger and the town hall are still in place. And it was there, about three meters deep, that archaeologist Claudia Melisch and her colleagues discovered the ancient remains of St. Peter's church, the remains of the Cölln town hall and a Latin school that radiated in 1730. More importantly, they have discovered near 4,000 skeletons, the remains of the first inhabitants from the city.
In addition to human skeletons, the archaeological excavation has uncovered some 220,000 objects among animal bones, coins, jewelry, vessels, china and even an ancient Jewish bow.
Melisch, who lives in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, just north of the site, has participated in archaeological excavations in Pompeii, Rome and Greece, but his biggest project was just a stone's throw from his house to the square where the inhabitants of Cölln congregated to go to church or buy their fish for centuries.
The archaeologists were fortunate in the sense that the leaders of ancient East Germany had chosen build a parking lot on top of what was once Cölln. The cement coating provided a excellent protection for the burned bodies and the historical finds below. In fact, in the skeletons of some of the exhumed women that Melisch and his team found fetuses inside.
“These people embody the history of the city of Cölln”Says Melisch. The unearthed remains are stored in a dignified way in the catacombs of the parish church, each of them carefully cataloged, numbered and packed in boxes.
Questions without answer.
Now they can start the forensic and biological investigation. After all, if scientists can extract useful DNA from bones, experts might be able to determine whether the first inhabitants came from eastern or western europe.
It has long been suspected that sprevanes, a Slavic tribe that took its name from the river Spree, erected its first rundling, or circular village, around the central square of what could be Colln. About 10 miles to the southeast, the same tribe successfully established fortified settlements of Copnic, which would later become Köpenick.
But nevertheless, no signs of similar settlements where the origins of Berlin and Cölln lie. The names of both localities have Slavic origin: “Berlin"Is believed to be derived from the word"br’lo”, An old Slavic term for swamp or bog. The same theory suggests that “Colln"Comes from the Slavic word"Kol’no", what does it mean "Place with palisades”.
However, researchers now assume that both localities were founded by West German merchants. Therefore, it is quite possible that the colonists of Cologne (Köln in German) named their new city after making their home on the river Rhine. for sentimental reasons.
Historians still speculate on why Berlin and Cölln they settled next to each other. Despite the fact that the medieval phenomenon of double localities is known to German researchers, experts have been wrong so far since two independent localities can coexist in proximity.
Fritze, the historian, speculates that “two competitive groups of merchants, surely from different regions of Old GermanyThey settled on opposite banks of the Spree.
It is also not clear when did they arrive and where did they settle in the places that became Berlin and Cölln. Berlin could celebrate its 775th anniversary this year, but it is based on scant evidence. Calculations are based on documents dating back to 1237 containing the first mention of a place called Colln.
However, one of the new discoveries suggests that at least two generations of collners lived and died in the time period the document says: a plank of wood unearthed from the site that was probably taken from a fallen tree in 1170.
Many clues, no names.
Of course it will be more difficult put name to the ancient inhabitants of Cölln. As a result, a priest called Symeon will remain the first known cöllner until now. In the 1237 manuscript, Symeon is described as a witness in a dispute over church tithes between the Margraves and the Bishop of Brandenburg.
Seven years later, in 1244, Symeon appears in another document describing him as the provost of Berlin. Unfortunately, it is not known whether he was a power-hungry church dignitary or simply a arbitration priest in the conflicts of a community struggling to survive.
“We may have found Symeon but cannot recognize him! "says Melisch. Despite how well preserved the exhumed bodies are, no clues about names or identities.
The Petriplatz skeletons show exemplary evidence of health for the medieval population. The presence of many diseases can be identified by bones, same as him level of medical care available at that time. The researchers want to look for signs of how the crises could change lives of the old Berliners.
Although few adults lived beyond 40 years in the Middle Ages, samples taken from the bodies suggest they had a good health at the time of the founding of the town. "They were tall and had bright white teeth”Says Melisch. Cavities just appeared around the 15th century.
Still, the toothache was the least of her worries. The people of Berlin and Cölln they probably passed periods of famine. In a cave, archaeologists have found the skeleton of a girl who lived between 1407 and 1431. She was about 10 years old when she died but only grew to 114 centimeters. Analyzes performed on the bones show signs of malnutrition.
More evidence about the lack of food is shown by the remains of pine nut and rye shells found by archaeologists at the site. Experts say it suggests the Cöllners tried to improve their diets with modest gardens and the right to farm in the heart of the city.
However, researchers have found no evidence to support the myth that the ancient people of Cölln they lived from fishing. “We haven't found a single hook”Says Melisch. In fact, most of the founders of both cities were probably merchants, since the most successful exports would be those of wood due to the fact that the region has large reserves.
The first written records.
The best way to see the growth of their fortunes it's for the churches. In 1379, Cölln was able to undertake the extension of St. Peter's Church, transforming it into a large brick building. In a small town, a 64 x 17 meter Gothic church would have been visible from afar, as were the cathedrals. Melisch suspects that it is a touch of megalomania: “The inhabitants probably meant "Look what a prosperous city we are”.
Nothing is known about important community figureslike those with money, power and influence. "We must remember that the skeletons we have unearthed include many respectable and honest citizens of Cölln”Says Melisch.
Respectable or not, their lives are barely documented. Only a few details from 1594 exist about the parish priest of St. Peter. These data are preserved by what is known of Johann Peter Süssmilch, the provost of St. Peter early 1742, the man who is considered the founder of German population statistics.
It is possible that the descendants of the first pioneers who settled on the banks of the River Spree still live in berlin today. To determine this, they should give saliva samples to compare with genetic material extracted from skeletons.
For now, the discovered skeletons are identified only with numbers. However, researchers have determined that body number 343 lived sometime between 1163 and 1218 and was one of the first bodies buried in the cemetery from the church of St. Peter.
Much of what archaeologists have excavated is a complete mystery. For example, why the inhabitants of Cölln were buried with their mouths openIf that could mean that his soul could escape more easily from the lifeless body.
The researchers' curiosity was also aroused by two men who were buried together, with a leather pouch containing a sea urchin around his neck. Probably they were blood brothers, a close male relationship recognized by the church in the Middle Ages.
Another mystery round about why many bodies were disposed of in individual graves in Colln. In one case, a newborn was placed in the grave of a woman in her 50s and 60s who was buried around 1200.
Hidden footprints, name changes.
No sign of the old Cölln in modern Berlin. Before the WWII, the area was a pedestrian zone. But much of the city was destroyed due to the war. Today, Petriplatz is a blind spot in the German capital. The forgotten half of Berlin has become a shady place separated by the eight-lane motorway connecting Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz.
Since the archaeological site is surrounded by ugly modern constructions, it is difficult for visitors to imagine that it was a medieval core. “At Fischerinsel"Says Melisch, referring to the southeastern part of the island where Cölln was located,"It's as if Cölln never existed”.
The old Berlin was twice as big as its neighbor, but not necessarily twice as powerful. In fact, the small enclave of Cölln on the Spree he belonged to a rich elite. "Cöllners may have been happy around like-minded people”Says Melisch.
In the Middle Ages, the protected islet between the River Spree and the Spree Canal would have had advantages over other areas, especially since the Cöllners had more fertile land than their Berlin neighbors. However, later, the waters prevented the expansion of the town. As a result, while Berlin grew, Cölln was destined to stay on the edge of the islands. It was not until 1662 that a small strip of land was introduced into the canal: Neu-Cölln am Wasser, or “New Cölln on the Water”, An area that only shares its name with what is now the Neukölln district.
In 1709, Frederick I finally brought them together. Cölln, a greater Berlin and three other localities combined to form the royal residence of Berlin and the capital of the kingdom of Prussia.
The name of Cölln lived as the name of the district until 1920, when the historic area was renamed Berlin-Mittle, literally “central berlin”.