There’s a hole in the middle of Prague, and we want you to know what’s in it. The early 1980s metro station at Národní třída is the scene of a fascinating archaeological dig that we’ll be visiting in this month’s Science Journal.
“What we see in front of us are the remains of the townhouses that used to be here. There are five of them here, and the way they looked changed from small houses of townspeople to larger buildings that were built further back from the street. Through time, the structure gets more dense, they added wells and waste pits, and those are the places where we make the most finds. And aside from those coins, pottery fragments, bones and so on, we have taken various samples for archeo-botanic analyses, so we will be able to reconstruct the early Praguers’ diet, the illnesses they suffered from, and so on.”
“Yes, it shows the very lively development of this part of the city. The place where we are standing is actually the border between Old Town and New Town. Right next to the place we are studying was an ancient road that led from Prague Castle through Old Town to Vyšehrad, and one of the gates to the city through the fortification was a few dozen metres from here. So this was a gathering point for traders and other service tradesmen. In the later periods, like in the 17th and 18th century, then of course the social structure of the inhabitants changed and Renaissance buildings are built, followed by Baroque and Neoclassical and so on.”
“What you see here is part of a burial site where the individual bodies have been laid in ordered rows like on a chessboard. We have already dug out the graves here. The bodies were laying with their heads to the west, feet to the east, with their arms by their sides, and the state they were in was surprising, because they were wonderfully preserved. So all in all we uncovered six graves that I would tentatively date to the turn of the 13th century.”
“We know that among them there were about three women – the anthropological survey is still underway. The bones show that the deceased worked in a hunched over position, they did hard work that left its mark on their skeletons. We are also going to do a DNA analysis as well and from that we should have some approximate idea as to their ethnicity or where they were from.”
Can you describe what it might have looked like right here at Národní Třída at the time that these graves were dug, in the 12th to 13th centuries?
Under what is going to be a very modern multifunctional building at this site you can follow the complex meshing of one era into another. As the farmers ran out of space for storing their products and feeding their animals, the space became used more and more by merchants and craftsmen, until even more people begin moving to the city in the 19th century and there is more residential rather than economic area. In the 20th century the lot changes altogether, filling up with restaurants, offices, administrative spaces and so on, showing the various needs of each century until it is cemented over for the construction of the Soviet-style metro station. The metro in fact runs just metres away from ancient cellars still being explored and learned from beneath Spalená Street.
“Four or five.”
Four or five metres, and it’s very cool now, and it’s very beautiful.
“This is the oldest of the cellars that we have here, so it’s from the mid 1300s. The layout of this cellar is beautifully legible and it’s a wonderful teaching aid for students and art historians. You can follow the development of building methods and urban transformation on the structure here. The walls show right here that the original floor was almost two metres higher, and the ceiling was not vaulted but flat. As they ran out of space they made these other cellars under the street; this one is twice as large, and they stop changing things for the most part at the beginning of the 16th century. And next door there are another two cellars, each about three times larger than this one...
Coming back up to the busy streets above is something of a shock, and it is a beautiful reminder of everything the modern world is literally based on and derives from. As one shopping centre and multifunctional building springs up in Prague after another, I’m concerned about whether these ruins will go the way of so many others, being documented only to be preserved in archives while progress ploughs over the real thing forever. The answer is happily no.
That was archaeologist Tomasz Cymbalak ending that edition of Science Journal. Thanks for joining us today and I hope you’ll tune in again next month.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 29, 2010.