6) Prague Castle: From spiritual site to royal residence

Basilica of Saint Vitus - the crypt of Cosmas and Damian
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Prague Castle is not only the face of today’s picturesque Czech capital, but also an important archaeological site whose origins stretch back into prehistory. The castle hill and its surroundings still have much to unveil, archaeologists say. In fact, a recent reassessment found that the area of Prague Castle was very different than previously assumed when the Czech state was being formed more than a thousand years ago.

Jana Maříková-Kubková | Photo: Dominika Bernáthová,  Radio Prague International

If you have ever taken a proper tour of Prague Castle then you can probably remember that it is not just a site filled with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, but also a hill that houses several underground ruins. Some of them churches, others the remains of a mediaeval era royal palace.

Dr Jana Maříková Kubková from the Archaeological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences is the chief archaeologist at the institute’s Prague Castle branch, meaning that she is responsible for any current excavations going on at the site. She says that there is still much to be dug up.

Romanesque Church of St. Bartholomew | Photo: Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

“We haven’t excavated more than a quarter, it is a large site. Currently we are conducting a development-led excavation. What we are not able to do is conduct research excavations, we have only conducted two of those over the past 10 years and they were small.

“Development-led excavations, which are conducted when the site is threatened by new construction, have been taking place since 1920. We don’t decide where we will dig. However, we do try to conduct excavations ahead of every development programme.”

Stone Age origins

Rhinoceros bone | Photo: Iva Herichová,  Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

The oldest discoveries on the area of Prague Castle date all the way back to the Stone Age, the archaeologist says. Specifically, mammoth bones and the remains of a wholly rhinoceros have been found on what is today the area of Prague Castle’s Riding School. Pottery belonging to subsequent prehistorical periods has also been uncovered on the premises.

Basilica of Saint Vitus - the crypt of Cosmas and Damian | Photo:  Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

In fact, recent archaeological analysis shows that the area of Prague Castle and the Hradčany hill that it stands on seems to have been a spiritual centre already some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Dr Jana Maříková Kubková says that the hill seems to have been an important site within the Prague basin and possibly even within the whole territory of Bohemia for a long time.

Rotunda of St. Vitus | Photo: Martin Frouz,  Prague Castle Administration

“Our current hypothesis is that Prague Castle, thanks to its position within the Prague basin, was an important hill that offered an all-round view and therefore played an important role in the settlement of the area already since the Neolithic period.

“The eastern tip of the hill was a religious area. It was then adopted by Christians and only after that the Přemyslids built a residence here. That residence was not located at the eastern tip, but slightly at the base of the hill. It is only in the 16th century that Prague Castle becomes a residential palace for the ruler. Until then it was primarily a church site. This has completely changed our idea of Prague Castle and how its history is taught in schools.”

Spiritual centre

Place called Žiži,  where today's Plečnik obelisk stands | Photo: Dunnock_D,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC 2.0

Evidence of the spiritual importance of the area that today makes up the primary residence of the Czech head of state can also be found in some of our earliest historical sources. The Chronicle of Kosmas mentions a place called Žiži, which would have lied around where today’s Plečnik obelisk stands, close to the Cathedral of Saint Vitus.

“Žiži is part of this sacred site. We know from written sources that there was a pre-Christian cult site there. The historical note that we have about this area is not clear, but it does tell us that it was an important site before the arrival of Christianity.”

Romanesque and Gothic architecture in the Cathedral of Saint Vitus | Source:  Prague Castle Administration

Several Czech historians have suggested that Žiži also housed a stone upon which Czech princes would have been symbolically sworn into power.

After the adoption of Christianity, the area of Prague Castle housed several of Bohemia’s earliest and most splendid churches. For example, the Romanesque era Basilica of Saint Vitus, which lies exactly underneath the modern Cathedral that is dedicated to the same saint, had only been attested to by historical texts before archaeologists started digging in the late 19th century.

Second courtyard of Prague Castle | Photo: Dominika Bernáthová,  Radio Prague International

Dr Maříková Kubková says that further discoveries were made during the subsequent interwar period, when the whole third courtyard of Prague Castle was excavated.

“Few people know that there is actually a hollow space underneath this courtyard which is covered by panels. Below them are the remains of Romanesque and Gothic era houses, as well as several phases of fortification structures and a Romanesque church.

Former sourthern fortification | Photo: Jana Plavec,  Czech Academy of Sciences,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“It was during the First Republic period that archaeologists began getting an idea of what this area looked like during the Early Middle Ages. Our understanding of Prague Castle, particularly of what it looked like during this period, was made possible thanks to archaeology.”

After the Second World War, archaeologist Ivan Borkovský led an excavation that discovered the remains of the Church of the Virgin Mary. This seems to have been the oldest church to be built on the area of Prague Castle, says Dr Maříková Kubková.

Photo: Jan Gloc,  Prague Castle Administration

“That church, based on both what we read in historic texts and on how we interpret them, was founded at the end of the 9th century, possibly by the first historically attested Bohemian duke - Bořivoj. The church disappeared during the Medieval Period and archaeologists started looking for it again after 1850. Fragments of the church, between the second and fourth courtyard, were only found in 1950.”

Royal burial site

Viking from the latter 9th century | Photo: Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Aside from religious buildings, Prague Castle also features one of the most important burial sites on Czech territory. Several Bohemian rulers are buried here, including the patron saint of the Czech Republic Saint Wenceslas.

In a recent excavation, a piece of textile that archaeologists believe belonged to Wenceslas’ famous grandmother, Saint Ludmila, was discovered. Dr Maříková Kubková explains how it was possible for such a delicate item to remain preserved for over a 1,000 years.

Viking from the latter 9th century | Photo: Czech Television

“This find was not made through classical archaeological excavation, but rather from researching a grave located in the Cathedral of Saint George, where we found several unique textiles. Important graves such as these can be found in churches.

Viking from the latter 9th century | Photo:  Czech Television

“They are not classical graves, where coffins are buried into the ground, but rather burials where sarcophagi are buried inside churches.  The bodies are gradually buried into newer sarcophagi and their belongings are reburied with them. That means that robes and funeral clothing is preserved.”

Photo: Jan Gloc,  Prague Castle Administration

Many of the excavated bodies were buried with gold, precious stones and jewellery, such as earrings and elaborate buttons. Dr Maříková Kubková says that these are all indications that these would have been elite burials. Not all of the persons buried at Prague Castle were members of the ruling dynasty. In fact, recent archaeological excavations have suggested that one of the bodies may have belonged to a man from Scandinavia, possibly a Viking from the latter 9th century. As Christianity took over and burial practices changed, the burials became simpler, containing less jewellery.

Photo: Jan Gloc,  Prague Castle Administration

Despite the wealth of finds, the archaeologist says that she is actually happiest when no excavations are being made, because this means that they are not being exposed to any potential damage. The archaeologist says that she is particularly worried about the fate of the interiors of historical houses that surround the Prague Castle complex, as these are often in private hands and subject to intrusive reconstructions. Nevertheless, work is conducted quite regularly as there are often repairs or further construction being made to the Prague Castle area.

For example, the recent construction of water and sewage facilities in the area led archaeologists to find the remains of a Romanesque-era house that was found in the area of Hradčany Square.

Hradčany Square | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

The evolution of Hradčany hill

Photo: Prague Castle Administration

Dr Maříková Kubková says that excavations such as these provide archaeologists with a better idea of what the area would have looked like during the Middle Ages.

“Previously we didn’t expect that Hradčany had been as densely populated as it was during the 12th century. This previously densely populated area disappeared during the Early Modern Period when it saw the construction of major palaces and courtyards.”

Model of Prague Castle around the year 1000 | Photo: Aribau,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

She says that archaeologists now have a pretty good idea of how the geographical area of Hradčany hill evolved throughout history.

“When we look at what the Prague Castle site looked like before the arrival of man, it was composed of an eastern tip, where Prague Castle stands today, then there was the area stretching from Hradčany Square to Pohořelec.

“Another specific feature is the Deer Moat and the area along the Brusnice stream, around where the Belveder and the Prague Castle Riding School are located. These places make up the basic geological area of the site. When we look at the settlement that was here during prehistoric times, we see that the eastern edge was the location of a cult, or spiritual site, roughly in the areas of Hradčany Square.

Pohořelec | Photo: Aktron,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“In the area towards Pohořelec there was a settlement. Then there was also a necropolis. These sites were still in use during the early medieval period. We are not exactly sure whether this site was settled continuously, or if there were also periods when it wasn’t.

Story of Prague Castle exhibition | Photo: Dominika Bernáthová,  Radio Prague International

“These burial sites gradually moved across the area of the Castle. Then there are also smaller burial sites next to the old churches. These are Christian burials. An example of this can be found within and outside of the area of the original Church of Saint Vitus which was founded around the year 930.”

The work of the local archaeological team has been incorporated into the Story of Prague Castle exhibition that has been open to visitors since May. An interactive smartphone guide that will make it possible to view all of the archaeological sites via an app is also being prepared for visitors.