Urban Archaeology: Stories from the Birth of Berlin

Most narratives about the birth of Berlin go back to the 13th century, when the city was officially founded. But for thousands of years before that time, history was being played out on the soft, swampy land on which the city stands today. Join us on a visual tour through our brand new urban archaeology walk, which, in the company of an experienced archaeologist, takes participants back to a time when hunter-gatherers roamed the area. Strolling through Mitte–the former center of East Berlin– we locate and discuss sites and structures that reveal much about the city’s ancient history, its medieval past, and how it rose from the marshes to become a metropolis so crucial to world history.

Slide 1
Our journey starts at the little-known but compelling Märkisches Museum, an institution that’s home to a variety of objects related to the history and culture of the local region. This statue stands outside the museum and represents Roland, a common figure found in marketplaces or in front of town halls in many North and East German cities. Roland is a knight with an unsheathed sword, and was considered a symbol of a town's autonomy. This particular statue is a copy of a Berlin original that dates back to the 1500s.
Slide 2
Located within the original city boundary, the Märkisches Museum is also home to a number of wonderful scale models of Berlin at different stages of its development, from the Slavic settlements of the 9th century onwards. The anachronistic, glittering TV Tower in this example shows the museum also has a sense of humour, but also offers a useful contemporary perspective.
Slide 3
Outside the museum is a bear enclosure (Bärenzwinger), and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of Berlin’s famous mascot. Currently there is one female bear in residence, and the best time to see her is around 12:30 - feeding time. A bear has been on the Berlin coat of arms since the end of the 13th century, and the Bärenzwinger was created in 1939 as a celebration of the city's connection with bears. If you’re not lucky enough to see the bears in real life, there are some great models on display inside the museum.
Slide 4
In the middle ages, some houses were built from wood and included an area for animals to live underneath. Our archaeologist docent Aaron, while working at a site in Klosterstrasse, recently uncovered substantial evidence from the earliest medieval settlement found in Berlin to date. From the same site he holds the distinction of finding the “oldest medieval pig in Berlin."
Slide 5
Another common building material during the Middle Ages was clay mixed with straw. Here you can see the indents left by straw in a piece of clay discovered on a local archeological site. The clay also contained some animal excrement; a practical ingredient which helped to hold it together.
Slide 6
Another aspect of Berlin that’s hidden in plain sight is the old city wall. The layers of ancient history can clearly be seen here along Littenstrasse.
Slide 7
The Graues Kloster (Grey Abbey) is a medieval Franciscan friary, thought to take its name from the grey robes worn by its resident monks. Today, ancient and modern history sit side by side, as the ruins compete for attention with the TV Tower.
Slide 8
Founded around 1200, the Nikolaiviertel is today a faithfully reconstructed version of a small medieval settlement that was largely destroyed during WWII. It’s a quaint and unexpected pocket of Berlin just steps from the socialist architecture of Alexanderplatz.
Slide 9
Built during the 1220s, the Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas Church, is the centrepiece of the eponymous quarter, and among the oldest churches in Berlin. During World War II the church was all but destroyed, like most of its immediate surrounds. Located in the former East, the church was not reconstructed until the 1980s, and is today a popular concert venue.
Slide 10
Flanking Alexanderplatz itself is another of Berlin’s oldest churches, St. Mary's. The church houses a large medieval fresco of The Dance of Death, a fascinating and well-preserved allegory on the unifying and indiscriminate nature of death.