As detailed in a report from the German public broadcasting outlet MDR, excavations in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt near Martin Luther’s hometown have uncovered the remains of a lost structure from the Early Middle Ages. In a cornfield located near the village of Eisleben, archaeologists dug up the foundation walls of a large ancient church, which was apparently constructed sometime during the second half of the 10th century by none other than Otto the Great.
This church was built on the site of the royal palace of Helfta, which was one of the homes of Otto the Great (Otto I) , a 10th century German king most remembered for his reign as Holy Roman Emperor (962-973). Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology of Saxony-Anhalt have been digging in the area of the church since May, and their excavations have now revealed the outline of Otto the Great’s impressive religious building project.
Enameled non-ferrous metal rectangular brooch clasp with retracted sides from the Carolingian era found at the site of Otto the Great’s huge cathedral project in Germany. ( Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt )
Otto the Great’s “Lost” Cathedral Was Magnificent!
Otto’s church was far from modest. It was a grand and impressive building that revealed his ambitions to revitalize Catholic worship while securing his hold on power at the same time.
“This is a magnificent, exceptionally large church, which proves the importance of this location in the Ottonian era ,” said archaeologist and site manager Felix Biermann. “With a length of 30 meters (98 ft) and a width of around 20 meters (66 ft), Otto had effectively built a church that resembles a miniature cathedral.”
While the discovery of the church is recent, work at the site has been going on many years. Archaeologists found Otto’s long-lost royal palace at Helfta while carrying out a geomagnetic prospecting survey of the area in 2009. Since that important discovery, excavations in the Saxony-Anhalt countryside have spread outward, revealing more details about the sprawling complex that surrounded Otto the Great’s fancy countryside residence.
In addition to the palace and the church, Otto’s complex featured residential and commercial buildings with pit houses, more courtly residential buildings for the elite, and an auditorium where various meetings or other events could be held.
The church is an especially exciting discovery, however, given Otto the Great’s intimate association with the Catholic Church in the Early Middle Ages. It was his loyalty to the faith that motivated Pope John XII to declare him Holy Roman Emperor in 962, 26 years after he’d assumed his kingship.
At the time of construction, the church was dedicated to Saint Radegund. She was a sixth century Frankish queen who founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers in France and is the patron saint of multiple churches European churches even today.
After examining evidence onsite, the archaeologists believe that Otto I and his son and successor, Otto II, visited the church at least twice. Otto I apparently attended the church’s inauguration, which is not surprising since the structure was undoubtedly built on his orders.
A precise date for the construction of the church has yet to be established. But it appears to have been built by the year 968 at the latest. This means it could have been completed either before or after Otto I took charge of the Holy Roman Empire .
Statues of Otto I (Otto the Great), right, and Adelaide in Germany’s Meissen Cathedral. Otto and Adelaide were married after his annexation of Italy. (Kolossos / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Who Was Otto the Great?
As a popular and able king who’d helped make Germany the most powerful state in the region, Otto I was seen by Pope John XII as the perfect figure to revive the Holy Roman Empire. This political alliance of Central and Western German states was originally formed in the year 800, under the rule of the Frankish king Charlamagne, who was chosen as the first Emperor by Pope Leo III.
The Holy Roman Empire was conceived of as a revival of the Western Roman Empire, which had become extinct in 476. By 924, however, this ambitious multi-state project had become stagnant and for all intents and purposes had ceased to exist.
During Otto the Great’s reign as emperor, which lasted from 962 until his death in 973, the freshly revived Holy Roman Empire flourished. Boosted by its strong re-launch, the Holy Roman Empire endured for nearly 900 years, until the Napoleonic Wars finally brought the alliance to an end in the early 19 th century.
Historians consider Otto the Great as the most influential of the Holy Roman Empire leaders. He built a stronger state in Germany as king, and as emperor help unite the kingdoms of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy under the Holy Roman Empire’s staunchly Catholic umbrella.
A cemetery at the site in Eisleben was found to contain the skeletal remains of about 70 individuals. Several tombstones were also recovered, which dated the burials to the 10th through the 15th centuries. This cemetery was “the burial place for aristocratic families of the region.” ( MDR Sachsen-Anhalt Heute )
Work Continues at Otto the Great’s Miniature Cathedral Site
While excavating in and around the buried church, the archaeologists have been finding many different kinds of artifacts, spanning centuries of time.
“Belt fittings, belt buckles made of bronze, coins, knives and various utensils came to light,” Felix Biermann said. “Numerous disc brooches from the Ottoman times, made of bronze, enameled and with glass inlays in a rectangular and circular shape, were excavated.”
One interesting find was a tiled stove, which had apparently been in use in both the 14 th and 15 th centuries.
Most intriguing of all, however, was a cemetery that was found to contain the skeletal remains of about 70 individuals. Several tombstones were also recovered, which dated the burials to the 10 th through the 15 th centuries. This cemetery was “the burial place for aristocratic families of the region” according to Biermann.
After it was completed, Otto I’s “miniature cathedral” was used continuously for more than 500 years. It was torn down some time after the beginning of the Reformation in 1517, when the permanent split between Protestants and Catholics changed religious practices and attitudes throughout Europe. Given that nearby Eisleben was Martin Luther’s hometown, Otto the Great’s house of Catholic worship likely never had a chance of surviving.
But even after its destruction, the church’s foundation walls remained as enduring ruins. They were left buried beneath Saxony-Anhalt’s rich agricultural soil for centuries, until finally being rediscovered by archaeologists determined to reveal more details about the region’s eventful historical past.
Excavations at the site are scheduled to finish in September. However, officials at the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology of Saxony-Anhalt are optimistic that more funding for further excavations will be approved in the coming years.
Top image: The outline of the mini cathedral built by Otto the Great found in a cornfield next to the town of Eisleben, Germany . Source: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt
By Nathan Falde