Unearthing Prague's hidden treasures

The excavations on Prague's Namesti Republiky, photo: www.namrepubliky.cz

The Czech construction boom of the nineties was an exciting time to be alive for people whose business it is to make sense of the past. There have been more large-scale archaeological digs in Prague over the past decade than ever before in the city's history. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a far larger and wealthier early medieval city than historians had long believed.

"This is one of the oldest preserved buildings in Prague; it is, in fact, a Romanesque palace. It belonged to a noble family with roots Podebrady. It is very well preserved, in nearly the original state from the turn of the 12th and 13th century. Now we are in the lower quarters; it was a partially underground building..."

Dr Zdenek Dragoun is chief archaeologist of the Institute for the Preservation of National Monuments and my guide through an exhibition documenting forty years of the Institute's excavation work in Prague. Our journey through the past begins in the cellar of the Romanesque palace that has housed the Institute since 1965 and which once belonged to the noble family of Jiri z Podebrad - King George of Podebrady, who assumed the Bohemian throne in 1458.

"The family owned this palace until the early 16th century. So we assume, and it is very likely, that Jiri z Podebrad also lived here..."

George, also known as the "Hussite" King, was the first freely-elected Czech ruler. He was chosen as Czech King from among the country's nobility without regard to any previous agreements, hereditary claim to the throne, family connections or dynastic origin. After decades in the House of Podebrady, the Institute is moving to a larger building also in Prague's Old Town, just a few blocks away and some five centuries more modern.

"The exhibition is devoted to 40 years of work of the archaeological department of the Institute for the Preservation of National Monuments. It is also a way of saying farewell to this palace - we are moving, and this palace will be renovated."

When chief archaeologist Zdenek Dragoun first came to the Institute as a young man, there were at most five excavations in Prague in an average year. Permission to dig was granted only when a new construction broke through the surface, which was rare. But in the last decade, there have been dozens of excavations annually, and a bountiful harvest of artefacts which have forever altered the perception of Prague urban life in the Middle Ages. The have discovered that the streets were paved far earlier than was thought, and merchants here found a thriving market for luxury goods.

"Most new discoveries came from excavations in Mala Strana, the Lesser Town, which was before very little studied. In the last ten years we have discovered in many sections of the protective wall of the area below the castle, dating back to the turn of the 9th/10th century, which is much earlier than we thought originally. It brings new light into the significance of that area, including its fortifications. Also a nice surprise was the discovery of the rotunda of St. Wenceslas in the area of Prague's mathematical faculty. We knew about its existence because it was depicted in some 17th century art works, but we thought that it was destroyed when the Jesuits house was built, and we were happy to see that it was preserved fully. It dates back to the end of the 11th century."

But the site of a former army barracks on Prague's Namesti Republiky square is the biggest archaeological dig in the country's history, covering one and half hectares of land. Three Romanesque palaces from the 12th and 13th century were discovered for which there was no historical documentation - proving beyond a doubt that Prague was a significant European settlement in the early Middle Ages.

Millions of objects and fragments from eight centuries were found on the site, from ceramic pots, to combs and dice.

"Here we have a die - it's a trick one, because it has four dots on two of its sides. We can see leather goods here which have been well preserved in damp areas, and decorated leather sheaths for knives, some beautiful bone hair combs from the 13th century, remains of silver decorations, an interesting collection of ceramics, for example, this pipe from the 14th century - we don't know what it was used for, perhaps it was part of a stove. Here also have a fake 'gold' coin [zlatak]. We found it in some sewage system -- perhaps someone had to get rid of it in a hurry."

Some 1000 coins were found during the excavation works - the largest collection of coins found on a single site. Among the treasures that Dr Zdenek Dragoun has personally uncovered is a stone that was once part of the Judita Bridge, which collapsed in the mid-1300s and was replaced by the Charles Bridge, perhaps Prague's most famous tourist attraction.

"These are remains from the Judita bridge [that predated the Charles bridge] they are cedic stones, which are very dense, and we see that there are very deep grooves, which shows that there was a heavy flow of traffic on the bridge. This type of pavement was only used from 1270 until 1342 when it fell down [and they built a new bridge]. And seventy years of traffic wore down a 15 centimetre deep groove."

As Dr Dragoun looks back on forty years of archaeological digs in Prague, I asked him what single site he still dreams of excavating.

"We know of a few Romanesque churches that were destroyed in the Old Town, one for example, on Betlemska Street, the Church of Saint Ondrej, which was part of the Ostrovsky cloister - and we know that this cloister was producing relief tiles. So we assume that they used these tiles in the church on their grounds.

"That is one of the places where I sometimes dream that the city of Prague might say, Okay, for your retirement, you can dig there."