Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt


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More than 20 years ago, archaeologists found two children buried deep under Frankfurt’s cathedral – and two decades of research have left them with more questions than answers about the medieval history of Germany’s financial capital.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
Frankfurt’s St. Bartholomäus Cathedral added one more milestone to its 1,300-year
 history this month. An archaeological team revealed that a mysterious grave
 – the focus of over 20 years of research – contained not one, but two children believed
 to have noble roots. They also revised the year of death from roughly the 
year 850 to more than a century earlier, at some point before 730 
[Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

The 1992 find of a double grave during excavations at the Bartholomaeuskirche – generally known as the Frankfurt cathedral – wowed historians.

Two children around four years old, one dressed and bejewelled in the style of Merovingian nobility – the kings who ruled the Franks (Germanic tribes) of western Europe in the early Middle Ages – and one cremated in a bearskin according to Scandinavian custom, were found buried in a single coffin under the cathedral.

Twenty years later, archaeologists have released the results of their scientific investigation of the remains and the grave site.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
1992 excavation under the cathedral led to the discovery of the remains 

 of a young girl. She was bedecked with golden jewelry, and these
filigree rings 

adorned her fingers. The finery in the grave has its
origins in the Merovingian Dynasty,

 the united group of Frankish tribes
that conquered parts of northern France 

and paved the way for
Christianity in modern-day Hesse and Thuringia
[Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

It shows that the pair were buried some time between 700 and 730 AD in a priest’s residence near what was then a tiny church.

And it seems that the grave was honoured by the people there for over a century, as the palace chapel built by King Louis II in 855 was exactly aligned with the grave – and passed on its alignment to the later cathedral.

“We don’t know exactly why they were honoured, that’s the real question,” Professor Egon Wamers, director of the Frankfurt Archaeological Museum, told The Local.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
archaeological team first believed that the girl had been buried around
the year 850, 

because she was laid to rest along the central axis of
the cathedral (marked in red) 

around the time of its construction.
However, further analysis led them not only to 

revise the year of death
but also to discover that she had not been buried alone
[Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

“One can assume they played a significant role in this aristocratic class in Frankfurt…we know of a number of these ‘Adelsheiligen’ [noble saints] in the early Middle Ages. Educated, high-class people had easier access to saintly status.”

Fine clothing found on the girl’s body, including a tunic and shawl, and jewellery made of gold, silver, bronze and precious stones – including ear and finger rings, armbands, a necklace and brooches – are clear indicators of her high status.

Meanwhile, the cremated child’s remains, mixed with the bones of a bear, and the girl’s necklace copying a Scandinavian amulet, are further evidence of the close connection between Germanic tribes and northern Europe that had developed over the previous century.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
grave also contained ashes. The scientists didn’t realize at first that
they contained 

the remains of another child, who was also estimated to
be around 4 years old. 

The presence of bear claws, as well as other
animal bones, pointed to a pagan 

tradition likely brought down by
Scandinavian settlers during the sixth 

century [Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

The combination of pagan and Christian elements in the burial is a reminder of the slow spread of Christianity into Germany. Just a few years later, in a letter written in 738 AD, Pope Gregory III complained about the pagan practices of the Hesse and Thuringian tribes.

“These could have been two children from totally different cultural traditions who were promised to one another in marriage,” Wamers said – although he was clear that historians have little beyond speculation to go on.

Strategic location

Frankfurt -. then known as Franconofurd – “had already been held by the Romans and others as a strategically valuable location” before the Merovingian kings of the Franks, Wamers explained.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
Signs of Scandinavian influence also appear in the girl’s necklace, whose center
 medallion originated in northern Europe. Researchers don’t know anything about
 the link between the children, but given their prominence on the church grounds
 they believe that locals honored them for centuries after their death  
[Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

Located on a hill and at the meeting of important north-south and east-west trade routes, Franconofurd was the capital of a tax-collecting district, a bridgehead for the Franks’ eastward expansion, and a site where the itinerant kings of the Franks would set up their court when they travelled through the area.

“It was constantly being built over or rebuilt. There were high-quality stone buildings, a church, a large administrative structure, and outlying farms and fishing villages,” Wamers said. “By 794 AD, when Charlemagne held his Great Synod here, it was well enough fitted out for his entire court.”

But the two children were the first human remains ever to be found from the settlement before that well-documented event, and details about life in Franconofurd remain mostly shrouded in mystery.

More questions than answers

Frankfurt archaeologists haven’t given up on trying to find out more about the early medieval history of the city – although currently most of what is known about the period comes from later records about transfers of land and other property, which include scraps of historical information.

Mystery of medieval child grave in Frankfurt
gold-trimmed cross adorning the children’s shroud indicates that the
burial was 

Christian. With the presence of old German pagan rituals, the
grave reflects a time

 in which the lower Rhine River region was
undergoing a religious transition
[Credit: Archäologisches Museum Frankfurt]

“We’ve been hoping for a long time for finds made of precious metals from the ninth and 10th Century,” Wamers explains.

“We have very few high-value finds, like Carolingian swords or graves of men, almost nothing in Frankfurt made of metal that could give us more information about what was going on here.”

Even now, plans are afoot to begin new digs around the cathedral complex where the royal palace once stood.

“We’ll see what we manage to find,” Wamers said. “Just in the last two years we’ve found more palace walls, also from this period in the sixth or seventh centuries.”

Lurking in the new dig sites could be more clues to the history of Frankfurt – but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know just what became of the two saintly children who lay under the cathedral for so long.

Author: Tom Barfield | Source: The Local [September 16, 2015]




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