Archaeologists investigating a site in Helfta near Eisleben, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, have unearthed the remains of a church constructed 1,000 years ago on the orders of Otto the Great (AD 912-973), the first Holy Roman Emperor.
Since May 2021, excavations carried out by the State Office for Monument Preservation Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, and funded by the State of Saxony-Anhalt, have been searching for the long-lost remains of a royal palace and court known to archaeologists through medieval records.
Within the first few weeks of investigation, the team, led by Felix Biermann of the University of Stettin, uncovered the foundations of a three-aisled basilica church. It is 30m in length, 20m in diameter, and constructed in the form of a crucifix.
Excavations around the church revealed a cemetery containing several stone niche burials and brick tombs, as well as an array of artefacts including coins, pottery sherds, knives, a large fragment of a church bell, and personal affects such as belt buckles, enamelled disc brooches, and a 13th-century Romanesque bronze crucifix from a workshop in Limoges, France.
Chronicles written between AD 1012 and 1018, by the famous historian Thietmar von Mersburg, reference Otto the Great ordering the construction of a church at Helfta and being present at its inauguration in c. AD 968. It was consecrated to the Thuringian princess and Frankish Queen Radegundis.
Otto the Great was elected king in Germany in AD 936, and after aggressive campaigns to extend his territorial control into Italy he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He possessed significant influence over the papacy, and to revive Catholicism throughout central Europe ordered the construction of many lavish churches.
The church in Helfta, however, was demolished in the 16th-century following the Protestant Reformation.
Excavations will conclude in September 2021, after further investigations within the vicinity of the church to uncover any surviving remains of settlements or fortifications.
Commenting on the discovery, Prime Minister Dr Reiner Haseloff said: ‘With the identification of the location of the church, an important regional historical gap is closed.’