Archaeologists in Lübeck discover the oldest brick house in the Hanseatic city to date

by | Feb 27, 2021 | A look at the Kolk construction site

Lübeck archaeologists discover Lübeck’s oldest house to date: At that time, the excavation pit had to be braced against the pressure of the adjacent Church of St. Peter with heavy oak planks and large posts that protrude from the bottom of the pit. They date from the late twelfth century around which time St. Peter’s Church was constructed. Copyright Hanseatic City of Lübeck

In the course of the project “Spaces for Theatre Puppets in the Kolk“, archaeological excavations run parallel with the construction work. In recent months, these have yielded astonishing and impressive new aspects of the historical urban development of the area below St. Peter’s in and around the premises of the former Museum of Theatre Puppets Lübeck. Following the fantastic results of the large-scale excavation in the foundation quarter adjoining to the north, historical mosaic stones have now been discovered and documented in the Kolk, the exploration of which reveals the early structure of the city of Lübeck in even greater detail.

A more accurate picture of the early city of Lübeck

For example, the course of the river Trave originally ran closer to the Kolk, which rose steeply out of this riverbed. The natural terrain here fell by several metres to well below sea level over a short distance and was gradually fortified over the course of the Middle Ages. It was filled up with settlement waste from the city and thus drained. In the Middle Ages, the Kolk was a road constructed of wood, in which a small ditch drained the rainwater from the hill on which St. Peter’s stands. This old road was almost two metres below today’s cobblestones.

Detailed plan showing the church of St. Mary and St. Peter on a map from ca. 1200 (with red dot showing location of KOLK 14) © Archäologische Gesellschaft Lübeck, Jahresschrift: Volume 2-3: With Gugel, Pritschholz and Trippe – Everyday Life in Medieval Lübeck (1999)

A tower-like house built upon a foundation of granite blocks.

The Kolk was the site of the oldest large building that has been documented to date, the massive remains of which can still be found in and below the cellar of the former Museum of Theatre Puppets Lübeck.

To prevent the large building, (which archaeologists describe as a work of stone) – a squat tower-like building – from slipping into the Trave so close to the hill on which St. Peter’s Church was built around 1170, it was erected on enormous layers of granite blocks to compensate for the pressure of the slope. However, during the current work, the archaeologists were able to prove that even this massive foundation could not prevent the entire stone structure from sinking up to 80 cm towards the river Trave.

Originally, what is now the cellar was the ground floor. The street level was raised in much more recent times. From the Trave side, the building was accessible at ground level through a large archway. The preserved stone work which remains still has a ground plan of 10.5 x 9 m with a wall thickness of one and a half metres. It is quite possible that the present height of the house Kolk 14 also corresponded approximately to that of the original building. If one imagines today’s basement as the ground floor, it closely resembles a massive stone tower.

Lübeck’s oldest brick house is dated to the 1170s – one of the oldest houses in northern Europe

The building, constructed of smallish bricks measuring 7 cm high, can be dated to the same period as the construction of St. Peter’s Church, (ca. 1170), by determining the age of wooden posts and planks that were installed to brace the building pit. It is thus the oldest solid brick building in the Hanseatic city and one of the oldest in northern Europe. The great care taken in the extensive and very high-quality stonework, as well as the use of decorative elements such as what was once a surrounding ledge of chamfered moulded stones and rounded arched stones, prove that it was a special building even at the time of its construction. Possibly it was an early office of a nobleman or rich merchant directly on the Trave or it was already connected to the church under construction nearby.

From the preserved written sources of the city archives, a Gerhard de Kolke is named in 1287 – possibly the priest of St. Peter’s in the late 13th century. A little later, the building known as the “Priest’s House” is sold and is then called only the house “Tu deme Kolke (to the Kolk)”around 1334. Excavations and further exploration of the walls that remain at the site are still ongoing and may reveal more in the near future.

History of the site becomes part of the new institution at the Kolk

A new Lübeck cultural institution is being created in the Kolk from the Museum of Theatre Puppets Lübeck and the Puppet Theatre Lübeck. The archaeology department of the Hanseatic City of Lübeck and the new institution for puppet theatre in the Kolk are working together to make it possible to experience the results of the excavations digitally on site.

The aim of the new institution is to make the history of Lübeck and it’s listed buildings compatible with the modern requirements of a cultural institution and accessible to all citizens. Some initial findings have already been presented on our blog.

In addition to the historical insights of this building, it is planned to make all other archaeological highlights of the city available digitally, for all citizens of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck in the near future.

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