Berlin's Forgotten Half: Excavations Shed Light on History of Cölln

By Frank Thadeusz

Centuries ago, a settlement named Cölln formed the core of what is now the German capital. However, it was subsequently subsumed by the growing city of Berlin and disappeared without a trace. Spectacular finds are now helping archaeologists reconstruct the history of the village and its inhabitants.

What is today's sprawling metropolis of Berlin was once a virtually uninhabited, sandy area surrounded by bogs and impenetrable forests. Nevertheless, a margrave and a Slavic nobleman once crossed swords over this unattractive, rather uninviting patch of land.

There were few roads, but that didn't deter those tireless souls who settled in the region sandwiched between Teltow and Barnim more than 800 years ago.

German historian Wolfgang Fritze once said that it is "hard to imagine that the seemingly fanciful plan to build a town in a heavily disputed and sparsely populated border region could ever succeed."

And, yet, two towns arose there -- one named Berlin, the other Cölln -- separated by the River Spree, though connected by a bridge -- the Mühlendamm -- which stands to this day.

Relations between the two towns were tense. Both were fiercely independent, and each had its own town hall and mayor. The feelings of distrust were mutual.

In 1378, when fire engulfed large parts of Cölln, the Berliners haughtily declined to offer assistance. Yet, two years later, that didn't stop them from begging the Cöllners for help when Berlin itself was in flames.

The plague prompted similarly heartfelt animosity. Cölln was first struck by the epidemic in 1576. In an effort to protect itself, Berlin blocked the Mühlendamm bridge and forbade Cöllners from crossing over. Unfortunately for Berlin, a woman spotted a dead Cöllner on the far side of the barrier and climbed over to steal her jacket -- thus inadvertently bringing the plague into her town. In all, the scourge killed nearly 4,000 people in the two neighboring towns.

The end of the story is well-known: Berlin flourished and became a cosmopolitan city, while once-proud Cölln sank into obscurity.

Stunning Archaeological Finds

Up to now, historians have known very little about the early history of Cölln and Berlin, partly because most of the official documents and municipal papers were destroyed in the fires of 1378 and 1380. There has therefore been little definitive evidence of the early years of this ambitious colony on the River Spree.

Spectacular archaeological finds in the capital's former center could now change that. Indeed, it appears that Cölln was the older of the two neighboring settlements. What's more, the core of what would eventually become a sprawling city may have developed fully half a century earlier than had previously been assumed.

The center of Cölln was situated around today's Petriplatz, south of what is now Schlossplatz on Berlin's Museum Island. A church, a cemetery, a fish market and the town hall all stood on the site. And it was there that, some three meters (10 feet) down, archaeologist Claudia Melisch and her colleagues discovered the old foundations of St. Peter's Church, the remains of Cölln's town hall and a Latin school that burnt down in 1730. More importantly still, they also unearthed nearly 4,000 skeletons, the remains of the town's first inhabitants.

Aside from the human skeletons, the archaeological dig also turned up some 220,000 artifacts: animal bones, coins, jewelry, vases, crockery and even an ancient Jew's harp.

Melisch, who lives in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district just north of the site, has taken part in archaeological digs in Pompeii, Rome and Greece. But her biggest project took her no more than a stone's throw from her home, to the square where Cölln's inhabitants congregated to go to church or buy their fish for centuries.

The archaeologists were fortunate in the sense that leaders of the former East Germany had chosen to build a parking lot on top of what was once Cölln. The cement seal clearly provided excellent protection for the buried bodies and historical foundations below. In fact, the skeletons of some of the exhumed female Cöllners are so well preserved that Melisch and her team discovered fetuses inside them.

"These people embody the history of the town of Cölln," Melisch says. The unearthed remains of the Cöllners are stored in a dignified manner in the catacombs of the parish church, each carefully cataloged, numbered and packed in boxes.

Unanswered Questions

Now the forensic and biological research can begin. After all, if scientists can extract useful DNA from the bones, the experts may be able to determine whether the first inhabitants of Cölln came from eastern or western Europe.

It was long suspected that Sprevanes, a Slavic tribe that takes its name from the River Spree, erected their first rundling, or circular village, around the central square of what would become Cölln. Just 16 kilometers (10 miles) southeast of there, the same tribe successfully established the fortified settlement of Copnic, which would later became Köpenick.

However, no traces of similar settlements had previously been found in the historic foundations of Berlin and Cölln. Even so, the names of both towns were seen as pointing to Slavic origins: "Berlin" was believed to have derived from the word "br'lo," an ancient Slavic term for swamp or bog. The same theory suggests that "Cölln" came from the Slavic "Kol'no," which means "place with palisades."

However, researchers now assume that both towns were founded by German traders from the west. It's therefore quite possible that settlers from Cologne (Köln, in German) named the new town after their former home on the River Rhine for sentimental reasons.

Historians still wonder why the two towns of Berlin and Cölln were established right next to one another. Although the medieval phenomenon of the double town is known to German researchers -- after all, rivers dissect towns into two geographic halves in Brandenburg and Frankfurt and der Oder -- experts have been baffled up to now as to why two independent and equal towns would coexist in such close proximity.

Fritze, the historian, speculated that "two competing groups of tradesmen, perhaps from different regions of Old Germany" settled down on opposite banks of the Spree.

It has also been unclear thus far when these first settlers arrived, and whether they set up camp on the site that became Berlin or on the Cölln side of the river. Berlin may be celebrating its 775th anniversary this year, but that figure is based on scant evidence. The calculation stems from a document dating back to 1237 containing the first mention of a place called Cölln.

However, one of the newer finds suggests that at least two generations of Cöllners had lived and died by the time that document was written: A wooden plank unearthed from the site was probably taken from a tree felled in 1170.

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