Archaeologists working in Germany have been uncovering the remains of a medieval village that was deserted around the end of the 15th century. They have so far discovered thousands of items and a small castle.
Research on the village, which is located near the town of Harzgerode in the central part of the country, began last year. The work is being carried by the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt and the University of Göttingen, with digs being conducted last year and this year.
In the local region there are almost 200 medieval deserted villages, which are known from surface finds, historical maps, or can be identified in digital terrain models. Very few of these sites have been intensively investigated archaeologically and many questions exist about their economic function. The investigations near Harzgerode centre around a village that has been swallowed by a dense forest.
The excavated “row village” is located on both sides of a small stream valley and made up of regularly arranged farm plots. Some of these plots have clear house pits in the front area facing the stream. In the northeastern settlement area, possibly on a double or oversized plot, there is a small, oval hill fort measuring around 45 x 60 m, which can be described as a castle belonging to local nobility. Studies on local history identify the site as a village that appears in written sources starting from 1216. The village is said to have fallen into desolation between 1488 and 1562 at the latest.
The archaeological area is exceptionally well preserved, meaning that finds and features can be easily identified. In addition, the moist environment of the site (due to its location on the stream) suggests the presence of preserved organic materials. Ridge and furrows surrounding the site and possible hortisols (intensively used garden soils) provide evidence of agricultural activities. The parallel existence of a rural settlement structure and a lower nobility seat offers another promising starting point for archaeological investigations.
The first survey in spring 2022 revealed over 400 individual finds – in addition to the typical settlement ceramics from the 13th to 14th centuries, numerous objects from a stately context such as spurs and metal pieces from buckles were also found. There are also silver coins and numerous iron objects. Horseshoes of various designs continue to demonstrate intensive use of the site far beyond the end of the village.
More research was carried out in the autumn 2022, during which five excavation trenches were opened. Parts of the external fortifications as well as remains of the building’s foundations were recorded. The researchers uncovered several thousand finds, including roofing slates and green-glazed roof tiles. The latter are special because they are very rare in rural contexts.
Excavations in 2023 involved a two-week excavation with two archaeologists, nine students from the University of Göttingen and seven volunteers working away at four excavation sections with a total size of approximately 50 square metres. The largest of these trenches cut through the castle’s ditch and the rampart in front of it, creating a profile over 12 metres long. The ditch was dug approximately 2 metres deep into the existing slate rock.
The excavation team was able to document a total of well over 2,000 finds, including two iron crossbow bolts, numerous fragments of horseshoes, iron nails, glazed and unglazed roof tiles, roof slates, and numerous fragments of pottery. The majority of this year’s finds, like the pieces from the 2022 campaign, belong to the 13th to 14th centuries. A small part of the finds indicates that settlement began on site as early as the 11th century. A chronological outlier – perhaps a witness to the area being reused after the settlement was abandoned – is a silver coin from 1560.
Top Image: Documentation work in the area of the rampart and ditch. Photo by A. Swieder / State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt