First bishop’s palace of Merseburg discovered

Arch in the basement of the medieval bishop's seat

View of the southern interior wall in the basement of the Merseburg Martinikurie. The 11th century masonry is still preserved to its full height under the barrel vault that was added later. © State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt/ Dirk Höhne

Merseburg in Saxony-Anhalt was not only an important palace of the Ottonian rulers, the history of the place goes back thousands of years. Excavations on the city’s cathedral hill have now uncovered surprisingly well-preserved remains of the medieval bishop’s seat. This first bishop’s palace, built in 1042, was a representative hall building, the basement of which is almost completely preserved. As the archaeologists determined, the walls of the medieval building rested on the even older relics of a mighty rampart from the late Bronze Age.

Merseburg in Saxony-Anhalt has been an important settlement for thousands of years. The town was mentioned in a tithe register as early as the 9th century, and in the 10th century Henry I, Duke of Saxony and King of the East Frankish Empire, built his royal court in Merseburg, which he later expanded into a palace. Under his son, Otto I, Merseburg also became a bishop’s seat. Architectural evidence of the Ottonian era can still be found in Merseburg today, especially on the city’s cathedral hill, as excavations at various points in this area have shown.

A representative hall building from the Middle Ages

Now there are further finds from the so-called Martinikurie in the extreme south of the cathedral hill. This is an impressive two-storey residential building from the Baroque period, which was completed in 1735. During construction work, archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology of Saxony-Anhalt carried out archaeological and architectural-historical investigations in the basement of the building. It was found that the remains of a much older predecessor building are hidden beneath the Baroque building. This is the almost completely preserved, cellar-like lower floor of a hall building, whose 1.75-metre-thick foundation walls are still preserved up to a height of 3.40 metres. Steps in the masonry and a pillar from the time of construction inside the building prove that there was once at least one hall-like upper floor on top of this.

The archaeologists assume that these are well-preserved remains of the first bishop’s palace on the cathedral hill. It was built around the time of the second consecration of Merseburg Cathedral in 1042 by Bishop Hunold. “The representative hall building that was unexpectedly found inside the Martinikuria, which can be identified with the first bishop’s palace of the diocese of Merseburg, is of particular importance,” explains state archaeologist Harald Meller. “This unique find in Saxony-Anhalt is one of the oldest secular buildings in the state that has been preserved with its masonry.” With its stately hall serving representative purposes and the size of the building (20 by 10 meters), this building expressed the self-confidence of the diocese that was re-established in 1004.

Bronze Age Wall
The lowest stone layer of the medieval masonry stands directly on the prehistoric wall. © State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt/ Dirk Höhne.

Bishop’s seat on Bronze Age wall

The excavations in the Martinikurie also uncovered relics that go back even further. They show that the medieval bishop’s seat was built on a rampart that was thousands of years old. The remains of this rampart reach a depth of around four metres below the medieval floor level. This structure surrounded the entire cathedral hill in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age around 3,000 years ago, as the archaeologists explain. In the early Middle Ages, these ramparts then served as the basis for the Carolingian and Ottonian fortifications. They were obviously still impressive at that time because of their size, as historical records show.

Thietmar, the Merseburg bishop and chronicler of the Ottonian period, reports that Henry I decorated the “Roman work” in Merseburg with a wall. According to archaeologists, the excavation results at various locations on the cathedral hill now leave little doubt that this “Roman work” was the prehistoric rampart. “As a state steeped in history, Saxony-Anhalt is always good for surprises. This also applies to this find on the Merseburg cathedral hill,” said the Prime Minister of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, during a visit to the excavation site. “It is important to research and preserve these historical relics. They help us to better understand our state’s history.”

Source: State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt – State Museum of Prehistory

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