775 Years of Berlin » City in the Middle Ages


The old centre of Cölln has long since disappeared under streets and car parks. It came to light impressively again however in extensive excavations carried out on Petriplatz from 2007 to 2009. The foundations of the Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church), the adjacent Latin School, Cölln’s Rathaus and the remains of the first half-timbered houses built here were revealed. Around the Petrikirche graves from a period of over 500 years were found.
Excavations on Petriplatz in 2007/2008. Graves uncovered on the square’s northern side. The foundations of the chancel of the neo-Gothic Petrikirche can be seen to the right. © Foto: Claudia Maria Melisch / 775 Jahre Berlin

Nothing is left to remind us of the heart of old Cölln. The site where once the Petrikirche, the Rathaus and the Latin School stood is now a car park, an inhospitable place that thousands of cars thunder past daily. But Berliners now know again where Petriplatz is. Here in 2007 and 2008, in the shadow of the greying tower blocks on the Fischerinsel, archaeologists uncovered a huge cemetery around the Petrikirche’s foundations. 3,700 skeletons lay in the sandy soil. For more than 500 years, until the cemetery was closed in 1717, Cölln buried its dead here. Among these were a strikingly large numbers of teenagers and young adults, killed by infectious diseases.

The archaeologists dug extensively and deeply into the soil, uncovering layer after layer, and were able to show how buildings on the square between Gertraudenstrasse, Scharrenstrasse and Breite Strasse had looked over the many centuries. At the centre of the square are several layers of the foundations of four churches. The foundation walls of the newest of them form a clear outline; its cross-shaped floor plan and polygonal chancel are clearly identifiable. The slender tower of the neo-Gothic building, almost a hundred metres high, was demolished in the early 1960s, despite the resistance of the Protestant community.

Petrikirche auf der Stridbeck-Zeichnung
The late-Gothic Petrikirche in a drawing by Johann Stridbeck, 1690. By the 17th century the tower had become dilapidated. It was demolished and the stump of the tower was roofed over.

The oldest stone church on the square was built of boulders and cobblestones, probably at the start of the 13th century. At 45 to 50 metres long, it was much smaller than the Nikolaikirche, the parish church of Cölln’s ‘sister city’ Berlin, which was built at the same time, but it probably also had a massive western tower. It was in this late Romanesque church that Symeon, the first Berliner to be known by name, who is mentioned in a document of 28 October 1237 (and again in a document of 1244 as Provost of Berlin) was parish priest.

To the south of the Petrikirche, archaeologists uncovered the foundation walls of a fairly large square building. It had brick walls above a stone plinth and a brick floor. Research in the city archives showed they had found the Latin School, which was founded in the 13th century to educate young priests. From it developed the city school (Stadtschule) and a grammar school.

The archaeologists penetrated as far down as the period of the first, pre-urban settlement. Under the foundations of the Latin School they found earth cellars. An oak plank used there was dated to the period around 1212. Traces of the early settlement were also found to the north of the church, including a well sunk around 1230. During excavations in 1967, graves had already been found in untouched white sand below the foundations of the Romanesque church. Here lay the first settlers of Cölln, who founded a small market town on this site to the south of the ford across the Spree.

Hopefully parts of the excavations of this historic site will remain visible in future. In 2008 the possibility of opening an archaeological centre on the square was discussed. The current plan is to integrate the Latin School’s foundation walls into the lower storey of a planned office building. Petriplatz is destined to become a real square again, with offices, shops, apartments, cafes and restaurants all around it. Six-lane Gertraudenstrasse as well as Brüderstrasse will be narrowed to make way for these new buildings. It would be nice to think that Berlin’s inhabitants and visitors could feel the presence of Cölln’s ancient beginnings here.

Read more here: Claudia M. Melisch, Marina Wesner: St. Petri-Kirche. Ein Rundgang durch das historische Cölln in Berlin (St. Peter’s Church. A walking tour of historic Cölln in Berlin), Berlin 2008

(Bilder: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin / 775 Jahre Berlin)

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