Magdeburg: Remains of a large Ottonian building discovered

Remains of wall

View of the remains of the Ottonian apse wall discovered in Magdeburg, to which a base made of plaster mortar is attached at the top. © Holger Grönwald/State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt

The city of Magdeburg played an important role at the time of Emperor Otto I. But only now have archaeologists discovered the remains of a large building from the Ottonian period for the first time. During excavations on Magdeburg Cathedral Square, they came across the massive, curved wall of an apse and an adjacent wall base from the 10th/11th century. Century. Both belonged to a monumental building from the time of Otto the Great that once stood in the center of Magdeburg.

Born in 912, Otto I, Duke of Saxony, became one of the most important rulers of medieval Europe over the course of his life. Through strategic marriages, campaigns and clever politics, he was crowned first king of Eastern France, then king of Italy and finally, in 962, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The city of Magdeburg played an important role for Otto the Great, which he expanded into an important Palatinate and a Christian base against the Slavs from 936 onwards. Otto I had the first Magdeburg Cathedral and the Moritz Monastery built in Magdeburg and founded Magdeburg's rise to one of the most important German cities of the Middle Ages.

Previous excavations with gaps

However, only a few direct structural traces of the Ottonian period have been preserved in Magdeburg. As early as the 1960s, archaeologists searched for the remains of the old imperial palace on the Magdeburg Cathedral Hill, which rises as a plateau above the western bank of the Elbe. During these excavations they actually discovered the foundation trenches of an Ottonian monumental building on the eastern edge of the cathedral square. However, the stone blocks that once lay in these trenches were missing, as reported by the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology.

To the north of today's cathedral, not far from these ditches, the archaeologists of the time discovered further building remains - massive foundation walls of another monumental building. They initially interpreted this as the Ottonian royal palace and the palace of Otto the Great. However, further excavations and analyzes have since shown that these building remains do not come from the Ottonian period, but primarily from the 12th century. Archaeologists discovered further traces of this building complex east of Cathedral Square between 2001 and 2003. This building is probably the bishop's palace of Norbert von Xanten, who was Archbishop of Magdeburg from 1126 to 1134. This was apparently built relatively recently after the end of the Ottonian period on the remains of the older building.

First Ottonian wall remains discovered

In order to close the spatial gap between the building remains discovered in the 1960s and 2000s, the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology has been carrying out new excavations since mid-October 2023 - this time in the southeast corner of Magdeburg Cathedral Square. The team led by Holger Grönwald made a special discovery: during their survey, they came across the undisturbed relics of a building from the Ottonian period for the first time. This is the massive, curved outer wall of a semicircular room (apse), which is adjoined to the north by another wall base running west.

“For the first time in Magdeburg, not only the excavated pits, but also secured stone structural findings of a representative Ottonian period building could be documented,” says the state office’s statement. The apse apparently formed the western end of the Ottonian monumental building, which at that time extended to the east parallel to the previous building of the Gothic cathedral. The finds suggest that the outer wall of the apse at that time was representatively structured by half-columns or pilasters. On the former outside of the building, both foundation walls also had a slanted base made of plaster mortar, which was probably intended to protect the masonry from moisture.

“The findings that have now been documented represent the building stock from the Ottonian period that was largely thought to be lost but has now been proven, and thus also the considerable potential for archaeological research at this historically significant site,” explains the state office. The newly discovered building remains also confirm that Magdeburg Cathedral Square was characterized by two phases of development in quick succession in the Middle Ages: the monumental buildings of the Ottonian period in the 10th/11th. Century, further large buildings followed in the 12th century.

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

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