On the trail of an imperial heart

View of the Memleben monastery. In the right half of the picture you can see the garden, under which the previous building of the monumental church continues. © Thomas Jäger, State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt

He is considered the founder of the medieval German Empire - Emperor Otto the Great is the focus of new finds in Saxony-Anhalt: Archaeologists have discovered evidence of the exact location of the ruler's seat in which Otto I died in 973 in the area of ​​the Memleben monastery ruins. They also found the remains of a building element in the cloister of the former monastery church, which may be the resting place of the revered ruler's heart. Further research results could now lead to exciting discoveries.

The focus is on the former Memleben monastery in the west of Saxony-Anhalt - a place with great historical significance: It is assumed that somewhere in the area there once stood a palatinate - a medieval ruler's seat where kings and emperors visited on their tours through it Rich temporarily resided. In the case of Memleben, according to tradition, this is associated with great prominence: In 936, King Henry I died there and, on his deathbed, designated his son as his successor - the later Emperor Otto I. The famous founder of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation then died in Year 973 also in the Palatinate of Memleben.

Mysterious story

According to a tradition from the beginning of the 11th century, Otto's embalmed body was then transported to Magdeburg. However, his heart was removed and buried in the church of the Palatinate complex. Because of this importance, his heir, Emperor Otto II, made Memleben a place of remembrance for his family: with his wife Theophanu, he founded a Benedictine monastery there with a monumental church, which was first mentioned in a document in 979. After a temporary loss of importance of the monastery complex, it flourished again in the 13th century. At that time, the old buildings were demolished and new ones were built. The ruins that are still visible today date back to this time and have survived the further decline of the complex in later times.

Since 2017, an excavation team led by the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology of Saxony-Anhalt (LDA) has been dedicated to researching the remains of the former monumental church of Otto II hidden in the area of ​​the monastery ruins as well as possible traces of the former Palatinate. The latest results build on promising finds from the previous year: It turned out that newly discovered traces of foundations are actually the remains of a building structure that stood on the site before the time of Otto II. It is possible that these are parts of the Palatinate complex from the time of Henry I and Otto the Great. This discovery is so important because it is still unclear where exactly the buildings of the original ruler's seat were located. Different locations inside and outside the monastery premises were possible.

Palatinate building and a heart sanctuary in the cloister?

Specifically, the newly discovered foundations turned out to be the remains of a room about 9.20 meters wide, which apparently had two portals. However, further investigations must first clarify the entire extent of the building structure. However, it has already become clear that the remains of the building are intersected by the deeper foundations of the northeast apse of the monumental church of Otto II. This confirms that the newly discovered traces come from building structures that were previously there. According to the detailed findings, the building was constructed to a very high standard. This suggests that it was either an older sacred building or a representative building of the royal seat in which King Henry I and Otto the Great died. “It has now been possible for the first time to identify reliable archaeological evidence of the authentic location in the Palatinate,” writes the LDA.

In addition to this discovery, the archaeologists made another particularly exciting discovery: They came across the remains of a building in the former cloister of the monumental church of Emperor Otto II, which could be the resting place of Otto the Great's heart: This may have been a Sanctuary - a place for storing and venerating the ruler's relic. This would fit with a tradition from the 16th century, according to which the reburied heart of Otto the Great was located in the cloister area of ​​the church, say the experts. However, they point out that so far it is only a hot lead. The building structure could also be the remains of a tomb of another high-ranking personality.

Further investigations should now clarify this. So it will be interesting to see whether the archaeologists can continue to clear the fog surrounding the emperor's heart in Memleben.

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

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