Sensation unearthed in Toompea

PHOTO: Uwe Gnadenteich

Old walls unearthed during construction work suggest a medieval building of which historians had no knowledge stood in what is today the Bishop’s Garden in Tallinn’s Old Town. Head of heritage conservation in Tallinn, Boris Dubovik, referred to the find as the most important this summer.

Road builder Tallinna Teede AS is reconstructing the Bishop’s Garden for the capital’s utilities department. The company will construct a boundary fence, water and sewage lines, street lighting and road surfaces. The project was thought to be simple at first as pipes and cables only had to be laid at a depth of one meter. However, one never knows what one might stumble upon in the Old Town.

“Since virtually no construction work has been carried out in the Bishop’s Garden, strata that interest archeologists have been preserved quite close to the ground. We hit a wall just a few dozen centimeters or so into the ground, after the upper layer of humus and gravel was removed,” said archeologist at Agu EMS OÜ Monika Reppo.

Because the top layer of soil revealed medieval finds, the company and Dubovik decided to dig a shaft.

“And even though we had no way of looking into the ground, the shaft’s location was so well chosen that we came upon a cellar portal from the 15th or 16th century a meter of which was still standing. A beautiful ashlar portal that has survived underground. We laser-scanned the portal before it was filled up to make a 3D-model,” Reppo said.

Large house by medieval standards

The exciting find had been carefully buried again by yesterday afternoon. Reppo was still busy taking some final measurements in the excavation hollow. The excavator and its operator, who had delved into his smartphone out of boredom, were standing nearby.

The portal was buried in sand for future excavation and research.

“The cellar is quite well preserved; the walls were covered in plaster and still are. The floor is of rammed clay. Measurements suggests the cellar might have had a height of 1.7 meters when it still had a ceiling. A cellar vault some distance from the portal has also survived,” the archeologist said.

Reppo said it is likely the cellar belonged to a rather large building. Current data suggests the side of the building measured 12 meters. It was likely a sturdy building with thick walls. The walls probably measured more than a meter and a half in diameter.

“This is completely new information for us. We had no prior knowledge of a building there. City plans from the time do not show it, nor does the city fortifications plan of Erik Dahlberg from the era. So, it is definitely from before the great fire of 1684,” Reppo said.

Because the excavation did not reveal signs of a fire, it is probable the building had fallen into disuse even before the blaze.

“Finds did not include anything from after the first half of the 17th century. The soil over the cellar revealed multiple animal and fish bones, with earthenware making up the bulk of findings, especially pieces of pipkins or special pots with three legs,” she said.

The Bishop’s Garden is an archeologist’s paradise because nothing has been built there. It has served as the location for a park for a long time and is said to have held a tennis court before 1940.

Discovery of the year

“The only thing we were aware of in the Bishop’s Garden was a well from medieval times. And because there was a great fire in Toompea in 1684, we have been finding medieval fragments in cellars. The architecture of the portal found in Bishop’s Garden seems to be from the 15th or 16th century,” Dubovik explained.

He said that while the reconstruction of the Bishop’s Garden will likely go ahead as planned for now, things will be different in the future. “I already said during a meeting that in the future, next year or the one after that, as funding permits, we could do in the Bishop’s Garden what we did in Freedom Square with the towers of the Harju Gate – to display the findings under glass panels,” Dubovik said.

“Because most medieval details are inside buildings, we could have a public exhibition in the Bishop’s Garden in the future. It is a public place that sees a lot of tourists, and people are sure to be interested in something as old as this.”

“We have no historic plans that show the building. So, we can say it is this summer’s biggest archeological surprise in the Old Town,” the conservationist said.

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