One of the most important medieval rulers of the 10th century, Otto I (936-973) founded the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe. Archaeologists believe they have found the site where this king and emperor died.
Since 2017, archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt have been excavating the former imperial palace and the rich Benedictine monastery in Memleben, located in central Germany. This year’s investigations yielded new findings of extraordinary importance. For the first time, reliable archaeological evidence of the Palatinate of Memleben, the as-yet unlocated place of death of Emperor Otto the Great and his father Henry the Fowler (919-936). The site was soon turned into a monastery church by Otto’s son, Otto II. A mysterious foundation in the cloister of the monastery church can also possibly be linked to the burial of Otto the Great’s heart and internal organs.
The former Memleben monastery is one of the most important medieval sites in the region. The ruins of the monastery church from the 13th century with its preserved crypt are considered outstanding examples of the transition from late Romanesque to early Gothic style architecture. It reflects the historical significance of the place: The founder of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Otto I, known as ‘The Great’, passed away in Memleben in 973, as did his father in 936. The son and successor of Otto the Great, Otto II, and his wife Theophanu founded a richly furnished Benedictine monastery in honour of the emperor at his place of death. It was first mentioned in 979 and was one of the most important monasteries in the Ottonian Empire. Although the complex lost its independence as early as 1015 when Henry II placed it under the control of the East Hesse Benedictine monastery of Hersfeld, it did not lose its function as a place of remembrance of the ruling family.
Recent research focused on three areas directly adjacent to the church built by Otto II: the area around the northeast side apse, which is partly used as a cemetery, the cloister area at the northern aisle and the connection between the side aisle and the cloister on the western transept.
In 2022, the remains of the foundations of a stone structure that existed before the church was built were found directly next to the northern side apse of the monumental church of Otto II. Since this was the first indication of architecture that existed before the construction of the monumental basilica and thus dates back to the times of Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great, its study was of particular importance during this year’s excavations.
The previously unknown building could be traced on a larger scale and turned out to be approximately east-west oriented. The interior is about 9.20 meters wide. The extent to the east has not yet been recorded, as the end of the building is superposed here by today’s monastery garden. In addition to clearly defined foundation pits with traces of mortared quarry stone masonry, the west side has an opening over five meters wide. A remnant of masonry in the middle of the opening suggests that it originally had two portals. The demolished remains of the building are cut by the significantly deeper foundations of the northeast apse of the monumental church. It must therefore be a building preceding the church from the 10th/11th century.
Its interior has a massive rubble pavement, which served as a substructure for a lime plaster floor that is only preserved in small parts. The extraordinary quality of the building from the 10th century leads to the conclusion that it is either an older sacred building or an important, representative building of the Palatinate of Memleben. Regardless of the clarification of this question, which can be done in the future with the help of the evaluation of the skeletal material from the adjacent cemetery and further geophysical investigations, it has been possible for the first time to find archaeological evidence of the authentic place of residence and death of the rulers’ Henry and Otto.
On the trail of Otto I’s heart?
Thietmar von Merseburg’s chronicle from the beginning of the 11th century offers this account of Otto the Great’s death:
On the Tuesday before Pentecost he went to Memleben and, on the following day, happily sat at the dinner table [6 May]. When the meal was finished, as vespers was being sung, he suddenly became ill and weak. Those who were standing nearby took him and laid him down. He was quickly fortified with the last rites and, as everyone prayed for him, he absolved his debt to nature on 7 May, in the thirty-eighth year after his consecration. On the following night, his viscera were removed and buried in the church of St Mary. But his body, having been prepared with aromatic spices, was transferred to Magdeburg where it was honourably and tearfully received and placed in a marble sarcophagus.
On the northern aisle of the monumental church, the foundation ditch of the original, much bigger cloister from the 10th/11th century could be found under the remains of late medieval modifications. The alignment of the building is interrupted in the center of the cloister by a large pit created to remove building materials. The intention behind this pit is made clear by the preserved substructure of a west-east oriented long rectangular foundation that is deeper than the church nave and by an elaborately worked stone. In the extraction pit above the natural gravel of the Unstrut meadow, a large amount of ceramic and oven tile fragments from a subsequent filling with building rubble were found. In addition to the remains of high-quality glass vessels, a Thuringian hollow penny of Jena mint was found on its sole, which dates the recovery of high-quality parts of the previously unknown building, which originally rose on the long rectangular foundation, to the late 14th century.
Based on current knowledge, it remains unclear what the building in the center of the cloister is. Traces of the mysterious building evoke associations with a written source from the 16th century, according to which the reburial of Otto the Great’s heart was located in the cloister area. According to Thietmar von Merseburg’s chronicle, the ruler’s internal organs were buried the night after his death in Memleben’s St. Mary’s Church (a predecessor of Otto II’s monumental church), and his embalmed body was transported to Magdeburg. An interpretation of the newly discovered building in the monumental church cloister as a sanctuary for the temporary storage and veneration of the ‘relic’ with the viscera of Otto the Great is within the realm of possibility. Another possibility is that it was the tomb of a high-ranking person from the medieval period.
New insights into Otto II’s church
To further clarify the floor plan and the building history of Otto II’s church, an area outside the northern aisle was also examined. This provided insights into the western transept, the foundation of which is interlocked with the nave to the east. This information complements previous findings on the construction sequence: the eastern apse and eastern transept appear to be the first components built. These were supplemented by the two eastern side apses and the nave and western transept, which were built in one go. During the excavation, severe fire traces were also evident on the foundation, which was originally located underground. They can only be explained by a targeted uncovering and burning during the demolition of the building and give an impression of how the material was extracted from the enormous structure: the laborious dismantling of individual stones using scaffolding was avoided, but large parts of the masonry were brought to collapse by fire. In parallel with the extraction pit in the cloister area, the demolition can be placed in the 14th century.
In summary, this year’s archaeological excavations in Memleben produced important results. Of particular importance is the evidence of a stone-built predecessor of the well-known church of Otto II, which was of exceptionally high quality and almost monumental by the standards of the 10th century. This discovery is extremely significant, especially in view of the fact that, despite all efforts, the Memleben had not been located so far. The Palatinate had an enormous historical significance for the founding of the Holy Roman Empire as the royal court and the place of death of the rulers Henry I and Otto I. As part of current research, it has now been possible for the first time to identify reliable archaeological evidence of the authentic location of the Palatinate.
This year’s research excavation ran from August 21st to September 29th. It was undertaken by the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt in cooperation with the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences (HA) and the Kloster und Kaiserpfalz Memleben Stiftung. Also, students from the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg im Breisgau participated. As in the previous two years, the investigations focused on the church from the time the monastery was founded in the 10th century and its immediate surroundings.