Passageway Through 2,000 Years of History Revealed by Cologne Excavations
Enlarge image Excavations in Cologne's old city include the oldest synagogue north of the Alps. (© picture-alliance / M.i.S.-Sportp)
Five years after the start of the excavations in Cologne’s old town, two-thirds of the area has been dug up, and finds range from the ruins of one of Europe’s oldest synagogues to a charred bundle of newspapers from the Second World War. So far, more than 250,000 archaeological finds have been discovered within the dig zone, excavation director Sven Schütte told the dapd news agency. The work is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015, and the findings are to be presented in the proposed exhibition building with an integrated Jewish Museum by 2016.
Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city and perhaps best known for its exquisite medieval Cologne Cathedral – Europe’s largest Gothic church – has been carrying out archaeological exploration in the area since August 2007. Since then, an entire Jewish quarter, including the oldest synagogue north of the Alps, which was constructed before 800 C.E., and a mikveh – a ritual purification and cleansing bathhouse, in which Orthodox Jews bathe on certain occasions for religious reasons – have been unearthed. In addition to uncovering the quarter’s stone wall fragments, building ruins and narrow alleyways, the researchers were also tasked with excavating a Roman governor’s palace dating from the 4th century C.E. According to Schütte, the Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest north of the Alps, and was already established and significant by the year 320 C.E.
Enlarge image Construction of the Jewish Museum in the Archaeological Zone is to begin this fall. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) The construction of a museum in the “Archaeological Zone” will begin in the fall, said Schütte. “We're currently clearing the construction site, after which the augered piles can be placed.” The new museum building, which will serve as a superstructure for the existing excavation site and holds an exhibition space of 7,500 square meters, comes with a price tag of 52 million euros, of which the City of Cologne is contributing 37.5 million euros, with the rest coming from state funds.
“The site comprises the time period from the Roman era all the way to just after the Second World War,” the excavation director explained. “It is a passageway through 2,000 years of history.” The site is currently unique in Europe, he stressed: “We have here the entire infrastructure of the Jewish quarter: the men’s synagogue, the women’s synagogue, the mikveh, the hospital, the festival and dance hall, the bakery, the warm bath and all the residential houses,” Schütte noted, underlining that comparable excavations in Prague and Amsterdam have not revealed nearly as many finds, and these quarters are much younger. More than 200 large documents have also been discovered, including the world’s oldest literary text in Yiddish. The medieval chivalric novel was written in Hebrew script on a blackboard, but the language is Middle High German, the language variant from which the Yiddish language crystallized and then developed. The text was written even before the Black Death Pogrom against the Jewish community in 1349. The Pogrom resulted from mass hysteria precipitated by the widespread outbreak of Bubonic plague.
Enlarge image The mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, uncovered in the Town Hall Square, dates to the first century. (© picture alliance / Arco Images G) “The oldest finds date to the first half of the 1st century,” said Schütte. Some walls have been discovered belonging to a settlement of the Ubier people, Cologne’s original residents. The walls were constructed in such a way that they paralleled and braced the banks of the Rhine River, protecting the settlement from possible floods. The youngest example of unearthed remnants was a plastic match case that was found in 1956. However, the finds have been so numerous that Schütte was led to specify that “we are certainly not counting animal bones or every shard anymore. They would number in the hundreds of thousands.”
The Archaeological Zone dig is not the only excavation going on in the “Cathedral City.” Excavation and construction works have been ongoing over the last 10 years for a new subway line, during which time researchers discovered 2.5 million artifacts, including evidence of the Roman port, of temples, fortifications from the Middle Ages and Prussian grave works.