Sunken church located in the mudflats

Excavations at low tide in the mud flats unearth traces of a lost settlement landscape from the Middle Ages. ©: Ruth Blankenfeldt, Schleswig

Lost for over 600 years: archaeologists have discovered traces of the church of the legendary Frisian settlement Rungholt, which was swallowed up by the North Sea in 1362. The impressive sacred building on a mound formed the center of a medieval settlement landscape with numerous buildings and structures, documenting further results of archaeological investigations in the North Frisian Wadden Sea.

Mysterious, fairytale-like and a bit spooky: Cities that once went down in catastrophic events exert a strong fascination on people. This is how Rungholt became a legendary mystery place in northern German history. Traditions tell about this supposedly rich trading community in the North Frisian coastal landscape, which disappeared into the North Sea during a devastating storm surge in 1362. After this so-called "Grote Manndränke" the area south of Pellworm became the kingdom of the lugworm.

Insights into the muddy ground

Findings of remains and historical research have already yielded some interesting information about the lost Rungholt, but the former settlement structures and the importance of the medieval site have remained mysterious. In order to provide new clues, scientists are now looking for traces in the Wadden Sea using modern archeological methods. The research institutions involved are now reporting on the latest discoveries in a joint release.

"The remains of the settlement are localized and mapped over a large area using various geophysical methods such as magnetic gradiometry, electromagnetic induction and seismics," explains Dennis Wilken from the Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel (CAU). His colleague Hanna Hadler at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz continues: "On the basis of this prospection, we then take targeted sediment cores, the analysis of which not only enables statements to be made about the spatial and temporal relationships between the settlement structures, but also about landscape development."

Exciting settlement structures

In May 2023, geophysical prospecting discovered a previously unknown, two-kilometer-long chain of medieval mounds near the Hallig Südfall. The finds in the investigation area, which is more than ten square kilometers in size, include 54 terps, systematic drainage systems, a sea dike with a sewage harbour, two locations of smaller churches and the special highlight: structures emerged from one of the artificial settlement mounds which the team undoubtedly considered to be the foundations of an impressive church could identify. The building was 40 meters long and 15 meters wide. Drilling and targeted excavations at the site have also provided further information on the structures of the medieval sacred building.

"This puts the find in the large churches of North Friesland," says Sven Majchczack from the CAU. His colleague Ruth Blankenfeldt, archaeologist at the Center for Baltic and Scandinavian Archeology in Schleswig, adds: "The special feature of the find lies in the importance of the church as the center of the settlement structure, which must be interpreted in its size as a parish with a superordinate function." Kirchspiel is a district comprising several villages with a parish church. The discovered remains prove that Rungholt was in fact one of the main towns of medieval Edomsharde, the experts say.

The exploration of the former cultural landscape in today's Wadden Sea should now continue - and apparently this should also be done quickly. Because although the remains have survived for more than 600 years, they are now increasingly endangered by erosion: "Around Hallig Südfall and in other tidal flats, the medieval settlement remains are already heavily eroded and often only detectable as negative imprints. This can also be seen very clearly in the vicinity of the Kirchwarft, so that we urgently need to intensify research here," says Hadler.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

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