When a construction site becomes a treasure trove for archaeologists

The object feels good in the hand.

When a construction site becomes a treasure trove for archaeologists

The object feels good in the hand. Jan Bock from the archeology office ArchON slowly twists and turns the bizarre lump of glass, which consists of several small bottles that have been deformed beyond recognition and melted together. The colored flacons once contained perfume or cosmetics, today they tell of the devastating firestorm that followed British air raids in July 1943 as an indefinable mass. which were found during a large-scale excavation north of the Church of St. Trinitatis in Altona.

The area between Königsstraße and Kirchenstraße currently resembles a landscape of ruins and is thus also visually reminiscent of the wartime destruction 80 years ago. On behalf of the Hamburg-West Church District and under the leadership of the Archaeological Museum, the excavation team led by project manager Bock has been investigating part of Altona's historic city center since March and has now presented the first results.

Around the church, which today stands as a solitaire in a green area, there was a densely built-up part of the city until 1943. In recent months, archaeologists have uncovered various nested cellars along the former Kibbelstraße and its side street, Kibbeltwiete. "No one expected that we would find a cellar landscape here," says Bock.

The excavation, which is scheduled to last until October, is taking place on the historically significant site in the run-up to the "Trinitatis Quartier" construction project. "Wherever we build, we have to secure the relics of the past," says Rainer-Maria Weiss, state archaeologist and head of the Archaeological Museum in Hamburg, which is responsible for the preservation of archaeological monuments.

Five modern buildings are to be erected in the immediate vicinity of the church, which are intended for social housing, a day-care center and a hostel for pilgrims, among other things. “The former cemetery and the cellars of the old Altona tell of a small-scale, site-specific social structure. We hope that we will do justice to the historical references with a careful development that is socially binding,” explains Probst Karl-Heinrich Melzer from the Evangelical Church District.

The old center of Altona developed around the predecessor of today's church, founded in 1649. "We have concluded that the basement structures date back to the mid-17th century," says Bock. The houses were inhabited from the Baroque period until their destruction during the so-called Operation Gomorrah in World War II.

The found everyday objects therefore come from different epochs and must be carefully examined and dated after the excavation. The range is already impressive: the archaeologists were not only able to salvage pottery and porcelain shards, but also cutlery, pots, pipes, keys and chimney fragments. One of the most unusual finds is a large South Sea shell and a box containing an entire collection of clocks.

In order to find out more about the residents of Kibbelstrasse, the researchers consult old address books. As the center of Altona shifted to the west at the end of the 18th century, the district around St. Trinitatis gradually underwent social change and became a craftsmen's and workers' quarter.

"Based on an address book from 1836, we can link specific building remains with a master carpenter, a master shoemaker, a master tailor and workers," says ArchON excavation manager Torsten Schwarz. The finds include two sewing machines and a three-legged cobbler's anvil.

In addition to the objects, the cellars themselves also tell a moving story. It is mainly about the last inhabitants of the houses in the 20th century, who sought shelter in the basement during the nights of the bombing. "In times of war, people spent more time in the basement than on the first floor," says Schwarz.

The rooms were furnished in a correspondingly homely manner, for example by installing cooking facilities, installing toilets or putting in partition walls. Some finds from this period are still very well preserved - such as a green glass ashtray or a brown bottle with the inscription "Natural consommé". Other objects suffered badly in the fire, such as a deformed "Opekta" bottle that used to contain gelling agent for jam making.

On the floor of a basement archaeologists discovered a deposit consisting of a fused mixture of ceramic, glass and metal. "You can see here what kind of temperature a phosphorus bomb can develop," says the head of the excavation, because ceramics only melts at several 1000 degrees. The meaningful substance from the basement floor is to be salvaged as a block and preserved as a memorial. In order to make the comprehensively documented findings of the excavation generally accessible, the church is planning a permanent exhibition in one of the new buildings to be constructed.

The Archaeological Museum also wants to show them as part of a special presentation. "It's also about preserving the cultural identity of the district," says Weiss about the importance of the excavation. In this context, a large sandstone fragment from the 18th century, which bears a well-preserved relief with Altona's coat of arms, should also be an interesting exhibit for exhibitions.

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