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

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.

Many Clues, No Names

Of course, Cölln's ancient inhabitants will be harder to put names to. As a result, a priest named Symeon will remain the first known Cöllner for now. In a manuscript from 1237, Symeon is described as a witness in a dispute over church tithes between the margrave and the bishop of Brandenburg.

Seven years later, in 1244, Symeon appears in another document describing him as the provost of Berlin. Unfortunately, it's not known whether this meant he was a power-hungry Church dignitary in an up-and-coming town or simply a priest arbitrating over disputes in a community struggling to survive.

"It's quite possible that we've now found Symeon -- except we can't recognize him!" Melisch says. Indeed, as well-preserved as the exhumed remains may be, there are still absolutely no clues pointing toward their names or identities.

Nevertheless, the Petriplatz skeletons provide exemplary evidence of the health of a medieval population. The presence of many diseases can be identified from the bones of the Cöllners, as can the level of medical care available at that time. The researchers also want to look for signs of how crises may have changed the lives of these ancient Berliners.

Although few adults lived beyond the age of about 40 in the Middle Ages, samples taken from the exhumed Cöllners suggest they were in good health around the time of the town's founding. "They were tall and all had gleaming, white teeth," Melisch says. Tooth decay only appeared around the 15th century.

Still, toothaches would have numbered among the least of their worries. The people of Berlin and Cölln probably experienced periods of serious hunger. In one grave, archaeologists found the skeleton of a girl who had lived sometime between about 1407 and 1431. She was about 10 years old when she died, but had only grown to a height of 114 centimeters (3'9"). Laboratory analysis of her bones revealed signs of severe malnutrition.

More evidence for the relative scarcity of food was provided by the remains of pine kernels and rye husks that archaeologists found at the site. Experts say this suggests the undernourished Cöllners tried to augment their meager diets with modest vegetable plots and tilling right in the heart of town.

However, the researchers found no evidence to support the persistent myth that the ancient people of Cölln mainly lived from fishing. "We haven't found a single fishhook," Melisch says. In fact, the majority of the founders of both Cölln and Berlin were probably traders because, aside from rye, the most profitable export good was wood, which was in plentiful supply in the region.

The First Written Records

The growth in the two towns' fortunes can best be measured by their churches. In 1379, Cölln could afford to upgrade St. Peter's Church, transforming it into a brick building of grand dimensions. In the relatively small town, the 64 x 17-meter (210 x 56-foot) slate shingle-tiled Gothic church must have been visible from far and wide, like an all-overshadowing cathedral. Melisch suspects this was a touch of megalomania: "The inhabitants presumably wanted to say, 'Look what a prosperous town we are.'"

Nothing whatsoever is known about the identity of the community's key figures, that is, those with money, power and influence. "We must remember that the skeletons we have unearthed must include many respectable and honorable citizens of Cölln," Melisch says.

Respectable or not, their lives were very poorly documented. Only a few paltry details dating back to 1594 exist about the parish of St. Peter's. This data was compiled from ancient church records kept by Johann Peter Süssmilch, the provost of St. Peter's beginning in 1742 and the man now considered the founder of German population statistics.

Persistent Mysteries

It's possible that descendents of the first pioneers who settled on the banks of the River Spree still live in Berlin to this day. To determine whether this is indeed the case, they would have to provide saliva samples for comparison with genetic material taken from the exhumed skeletons.

For now, though, the remains discovered under Petriplatz are identified only by numbers. Nevertheless, researchers have determined that find No. 343 lived at some time between 1163 and 1218 and was one of the first bodies to be buried in the cemetery of St. Peter's Church.

Much of what the archaeologists dig up is a complete mystery. Why, for example, were the early inhabitants of Cölln buried with their mouths wide open? Was it perhaps meant to enable the soul to escape the lifeless body?

The researchers' curiosity was also piqued by two men who were interred together, each with a leather bag containing a sea urchin around his neck. Perhaps they were blood brothers, a close male relationship recognized by the Church in the Middle Ages.

Another mystery surrounds the rules governing why several bodies were placed in a single tomb in Cölln. In one case, a newborn baby was put in the grave of a 50- to 60-year-old woman who was buried around 1200.

Hidden Traces, Changing Names

No signs of Cölln can be found in modern-day Berlin. Until World War II, the area was still primarily a pedestrian zone. But most of the city was leveled over the course of the war. Today, Petriplatz lies in something of a blind spot of the German capital. Berlin's forgotten half has become a dreary place sliced apart by an eight-lane highway connecting Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz.

Since the historical site is surrounded by ugly modern buildings, it's hard for visitors to imagine that this was the medieval core of the latter-day metropolis. "On Fischerinsel," Melisch says, referring to southern part of the island that Cölln was on, "it now looks like Cölln never existed."

Old Berlin was twice as large as its neighbor, though not necessarily twice as powerful. Indeed, the little Spree enclave of Cölln was primarily home to a wealthy elite. "It's quite possible that the Cöllners were happy to be among likeminded people," Melisch says.

In the Middle Ages, the sheltered islet nestled between the River Spree and the Spree Canal would have had distinct advantages over other areas, not least because the Cöllners had more fertile land than their neighbors in Berlin. Later, however, the surrounding waters clearly prevented the village from expanding. As a result, while Berlin could grow, Cölln was destined to remain within its medieval island limits. It wasn't until 1662 that a small strip of land was added to the south of the canal: Neu-Cölln am Wasser, or "New Cölln on the Water," an area that shares only its name with today's district of Neukölln.

In 1709, Frederick I finally merged what had long belonged together. Cölln, the now far-greater Berlin and three other towns were combined to form the royal residence of Berlin and the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia.

The name Cölln lived on as the title of the district until 1920, when the historic area was officially re-christened Berlin-Mitte, literally "the middle of Berlin."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt