Archaeologists explore medieval monastery in Germany

For the first time, archaeologists have excavated the abandoned Himmelpforte monastery near Wernigerode in central Germany. The dig, directed by the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, was able to locate monastery buildings and uncover numerous finds that tell of the everyday life of the Augustinian monks. 

The Augustinian monastery Himmelpforte (also Himmelpforten), located near Wernigerode (district Harz), was founded before 1253 by the von Hartesrode family. It was an important religious, cultural and economic center in the region. Looted during the German Peasants’ War in 1525 and dismantled during the Reformation, the buildings were later almost completely demolished and decayed. In the idyllic forest valley at the foothills of the Harz Mountains, only a few ruins of the monastery wall, as well a memorial from 1917 commemorating a visit by Martin Luther in 1517. Not even its exact location was known until now.

Sign near the monastery – photo by Z thomas / Wikimedia Commons

In order to understand the architecture and history of the monastery, archaeologists have been carrying out research on the monastery site with the support of the city of Wernigerode. The project is intended to bring this historical site, which has now been pushed to the periphery, back into the focus of an interested public. Geophysical prospecting was already carried out last year, which revealed the first indications of relics preserved in the ground from a rather small but stately monastery complex with the church in the north and the cloister buildings to the south, arranged around a cross courtyard. Their remnants are currently being examined with an excavation section 50 meters long and 2 to 5 meters wide.

This year’s excavation were led by Prof. Dr. Felix Biermann of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt. “Excavation pits of stone looters and foundations clearly trace the plan of the church and the monastery buildings,” Biermann explains. “Particularly impressive are the more than 1 meter high foundations of a large late Gothic building with powerful buttresses, which was attached to the south wing of the cloister. It was probably the monks’ dining room, the so-called refectory. The building, which was probably built in the 15th century, even had a washbasin integrated into the wall with a drain to the outside – testimony to the high hygienic standards of the convent at that time.”


The current work included intensive metal detector investigations on the entire monastery area. Numerous finds from the 13th to 16th century bear witness to everyday life, the economy, trade and the prosperity of the monastic community, including brass book clasps from the library, a writing stylus, ceramics and animal bones, knives, horseshoes and various tools, a sickle and a high medieval spur as well as a lock fragment. Richly decorated cloth seals made of lead are evidence of large-scale trade. Weapon parts such as the pommel of a 14th-century knight’s sword and a short slashing weapon of the following century were also discovered.

The four gold coins from the Himmelpforte Monastery. Photo by
Heinrich Wunderlich / State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

A hoard of four gold coins from the monastery building is exceptional: a guilder of the Roman-German Emperor Frederick III minted in Frankfurt am Main before 1493, a guilder of the Margraves Frederick of Brandenburg-Ansbach and Sigismund of Brandenburg-Kulmbach struck in Schwabach near Nuremberg in 1486-1495, and two guilders of the Archdiocese of Cologne minted in Bonn (1480-1481). Gold coins were of enormous value. The small fortune was presumably hidden by a member of the monastery in an acutely dangerous situation that did not end well – in any case, he was denied subsequent salvage. There is much to suggest that the gold coins, some of which were already heavily worn, were hastily hidden during the German Peasants War of 1525 when the rebellious farmers stormed the monastery.

A special aspect of the excavations in Himmelpforte Monastery is the intensive involvement of interested volunteers. In addition to the excavation team of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, 30 people from Wernigerode and the surrounding area were also involved.

Top Image: Wall remains of the presumed refectory from the 15th century. Photo by Robert Prust / State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt