Science Journal


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.

The Národní třída metro station that most of us know was a metaphorical hole even before the dig – a line of fast food kiosks between two chrome and plastic socialist structures that was a favourite stomping ground for beggars and winos. Plans to develop the plaza for office and shopping space has peeled back the grimy surface of this historic part of Prague to reveal century after century of history in strata that can be read like a book back to the 1100s. Here to do that for me is Polish archaeologist Tomasz Cymbalak, who is heading the dig.

“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.”

Tomasz Cymbalak
So from where we’re stranding now – about four or five metres above the bottom of the dig – we can see a very compact kind of maze of stone walls from which you can kind of see what a busy place this city was even that long ago...

“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.”

Archaeologists did of course know there would be findings here – aside from the evidence from the sonar scans that preceded the dig, you will always find layers of pottery, bones and other relics wherever you dig down into city centre Prague. But they were nonetheless greatly surprised by the excellent way everything under Národní Třída had been preserved, even despite the encroachment of the metro in the 1980s, and the dates that the evidence went back to. While they expected 14th century remnants from the establishment of New Town by Charles IV, they found even the predecessors of those structures – not the wooden and mud buildings themselves per se, but the outlines of them left like photonegatives left in the ground. Another surprise was a burial site lying just under what is now Tesco.

“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.”

So what do you know about the people who were buried here?

“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?

“The structures were primarily wooden, with a couple stone buildings and were compacted together. The road network was much smaller than it is today, there were less streets, but the road that we are on just now existed even in the early Middle Ages, and that’s Spalená Street. The water situation was different, there must have been several creeks here, and we know that the terrain was much more rolling, with small hills and sunken farm paths. There was of course much more greenery – bushes and trees. There were groups of houses – like countryside cottages – one next to the other, making small units. What was in this area was a small settlement that provided material support for the Old Town.”

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.

Now we’re a good how many metres under the 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...

“What we see here is a wartime passage hole. During WWII, when they found there were too few air raid shelters, the protectorate government ordered that the gothic cellars be used, because they were of such massive design, and they made these passageways between them so that if one began to collapse people could run to another. It’s wonderful, you have a real example here of how people lived and how things worked.”

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.

“It looks like most of the 11 cellars on this site will remain and will be written on to the list of cultural monuments. The intention for the future is that it be made accessible to the public in what could be a protected archaeological zone. Maybe in the end it will be preserved partly for archaeological and teaching purposes, or there could be a kind of gallery where the original structures that are in very good condition can remain and will not be damaged.”

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.