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Letter from Germany

Berlin's Medieval Origins

In the midst of modern construction, archaeologists search for evidence of the city’s earliest days

September/October 2022

Berlin Electrical PlantOn a warm, windy day in the spring of 2022, archaeologist Michael Malliaris unlocks the gate in the construction fence that surrounds the most recently uncovered evidence of Berlin’s past. Inside is a broad expanse of light brown soil the size of a football field, dotted with deep pits revealing stone and brick walls and floors dating back nearly 800 years. Across the street is an imposing modern gray stone city administration building. On the other side of the excavation area, several lanes of traffic crawl past. A few red-and-white shipping containers inside the fence serve as Malliaris’ office and headquarters. Malliaris, at the time an archaeologist working for Berlin’s Monument Authority, is a 25-year veteran of rescue excavations. Trained as a classical archaeologist, he found himself caught up in the rush of digs that accompanied a building boom across the former East Germany after the fall of Communism there. But this is the biggest project he’s ever worked on. “It’s a singularly intense excavation,” Malliaris says.


This work promises to fill in major gaps in what historians know of Berlin’s origins. Perhaps surprisingly, given the city’s prominence, there remain numerous open questions. Devastating fires in the fourteenth century destroyed archives from the city’s first years, and between 1618 and 1648, Berlin lost half its population and many of its buildings to the violence of the Thirty Years’ War. In subsequent centuries, the city was conquered many times, including by Napoleon in 1806 and Stalin in 1945. “There are almost no written sources for the early years,” says Ines Garlisch, a local historian who specializes in Berlin’s medieval period. “That’s where archaeology comes into play.”


By 2028, the area under excavation, known as the Molkenmarkt, or Whey Market, perhaps because in its earliest incarnation it was dedicated to selling dairy products, will take shape as a new neighborhood. But first, the team of archaeologists led by Malliaris is investigating what’s left of the original Berlin. Over the past three years, the team has been digging year-round to excavate a section of ground near the Spree River. Not far away, another team has uncovered the foundations of an early medieval church and thousands of medieval graves. And just up the river, construction of a museum gave archaeologists the chance to investigate the site of a former Prussian palace, a royal residence whose history stretches back to the thirteenth century. Finds there include massive fans installed in the 1800s to remove soot from the palace’s coal-fired heating system. Still more discoveries, including sculptures labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis and thought to have been destroyed during the war, emerged during construction of a new subway line through a park across from the palace. And evidence of the city’s early industrialization was unearthed in the form of an electric plant built to power Berlin’s first electric lights. They also located a nineteenth-century Prussian art academy.


Visitors to Berlin often remark on how present its recent history is. The city is full of monuments celebrating triumphs of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Prussian emperors and memorials to victims of the Second World War. There are less traditional reminders of the recent past, too, including bullet holes in walls built before World War II, the line of bricks embedded in miles of streets marking the former course of the Berlin Wall, and the stark Soviet-era architecture built in the postwar period.