Medieval cemetery discovered under a Berlin car park reveals its original residents’ lives were plagued by conflict, disease and poor diets
- Signs of rickets, scurvy and tuberculosis were found on some of the skeletons
- They had been buried around the former St Peter’s Church in Colln, now in Berlin
- Archaeologists suggested the remains reveal the capital’s savage past
A medieval cemetery found underneath a Berlin car park has suggested its early residents lived brutal lives plagued by conflict, disease and poor diets.
Among the 3,700 human remains found, almost half date to between 1047 and 1299, in the period when the German capital was established.
Several male remains show signs of weapon damage, while children’s skeletons betray the presence of rickets and scurvy – caused by vitamin deficiencies – and tuberculosis.
The bones of three wealthy men who had been hacked across the head with axes and swords were also found crammed together in a wooden box.
One had his nose removed while another had been struck so hard across the jaw that his teeth fell out.
The skeletons were found in a graveyard, dated to between 1047 and 1299, in Colln, which was swallowed by Berlin in the 15th century
Many bodies showed signs of vitamin deficiencies through scurvy and rickets. Some also appeared to have suffered from tuberculosis
This child’s body, also found at Petriplatz, suggested it may have been buried after suffering a spasm due to an infection with tetanus
Archaeologists proposed the city’s savage origin after analysing the early remains located in Petriplatz near the former St Peter’s Church in the town of Colln, which had merged with Berlin by the 1400s.
One child’s skeleton unearthed – dubbed ‘ The Swimmer’ – was found heavily distorted with its back arched and arms crossed, suggesting a possible presence of tetanus in the city.
‘It can be explained if when the child was buried they were in cadaveric rigor, or extreme spasm, with the muscles of the back arms and legs all contracted,’ said archaeologist Natasha Powers from Allen Archaeology.
‘The position bears a striking similarity to that which occurs as a result of tetanus.’
The three male skeletons killed between 1168 and 1208 – known as the Kiste burial – bear wounds suggesting a violent end to their lives. The lack of former wounds also suggests the men were not soldiers, but were still targeted by assailants.
One body showed blows from a serrated blade to the head and fine cuts to the hands, suggesting he raised them in a desperate attempt to defend himself.
Archaeologists pictured above clearing dust off the skeletons in the graveyard
They were first discovered in 2008, but have only recently been re-analysed by archaeologists
Pictured above is a skeleton found at the site
The second skeleton shows slices across the jaw knocking out teeth, meaning blows were applied with extreme force, and wounds to the forearm also suggesting an attempt at self-defence.
Fractures to the wrist were also identified, suggesting the man fell as he was attacked.
The third skeleton’s brain was likely penetrated by blows to the head, archaeologists said, killing him instantly. Wounds to the ankle also suggest he may have been pulled from a horse.
The bodies were found with a silver brooch, key and buckle, while one also had silver coins in his mouth, suggesting they were people of high status.
The remains of amputees, cancer sufferers and lepers from between 1050 and the 1700s have also been found at the site.
The havoc suffered by inhabitants bears links to the rule of Albert the Bear in 1157, who famously launched crusades against the pagan Slavs to the East.
Colln and Berlin first appear in historical records in the 13th century, although the remains suggest Colln may have existed up to a century before this date.
Albert the Bear also bequeathed his bear emblem to Berlin, which has appeared on its coat of arms ever since.
When and why was Berlin founded?
Berlin was founded at the start of the 13th century to control a trade route
Today’s German capital was founded near the beginning of the 13th century to allow rulers to exert control over the marshland and to help establish trade routes.
Its strategic position with sister-city Colln, established seven years later, meant its ruler could control the east-west trade route over the river Spree.
Initially abandoned to the Slavs, the area was re-conquered by Albert the Bear in 1157, a saxon who crossed the river Elbe.
He took the territory Margrave of Brandenburg, and lent the city his symbol of a bear – which it retains to this day.
By 1250 Berlin-Colln dominated the spree river trade, before becoming the centre of the city league of the mark of Brandenburg in the 14th century.