Archeology in Dresden

In September, as Seema already reported in an earlier blog, was the Day of the Open Landmark. And like Seema, I too visited the archeological digs in the center of the city. I too found them fascinating and learned a bunch of new information that I integrated immediately into my tours. I was saddened a bit though, by the tour, because I learned something rather disheartening, something that I actually already knew before because I had been seeing it happening before my very eyes, but had chosen to ignore the facts. By the time the reconstruction of the Neumarkt area of Dresden is complete, the historic center of Dresden will have almost no more remnants of its past under its feet. Looks like throughout the city center, the grounds are being archeologically examined, documented and then, except for very small portions (less than 10%), demolished.

As a preservationist by training, this news tugged at my heartstrings. I expressed my consternation to the archeologist giving the tours and was told that this was necessary to rebuild the center of the city, because the walls in the pits are all structurally compromised and cannot support the least bit of load, and besides they need the space for parking garages. Now, this sent me off into a tizzy in my mind about parking garages that I won’t get into here (maybe later), but I did manage to keep the wherewithal to ask what kind of criteria are used to decide what to keep and what to demolish. Apparently, if something is deemed truly unique, it stays. Several government agencies and the owner of the property all have to agree and accept the construction restrictions that this entails. Not an easy task.

Anyway, he showed us a very interesting foundation that was deemed unique and is in fact going to stay. Apparently, the archeological digs in that area have exposed mostly the foundation walls of the residential buildings. In one place though, the walls were quite different. Although above ground, the buildings all were similar (post-baroque residential), underground an older foundation for a larger (for that time) building was found. Research found that there had been plans to build a new Rathaus (town hall) on that site, but the plans were never carried through. This dig revealed, however, that partial construction may have been started for the foundations parts only.

The other interesting finding was remnants of the original medieval city wall. They happened to be situated in a location where the new buildings were not going to go up, so luckily, they just documented the wall and reburied it.

But the most interesting thing I thought was in fact a finding that was much more modern. The bombing on February 13-14, 1945 is of course a subject that I as a tour guide have to cover extensively and is one that I get many questions about. One big mystery for tourists is the question of why Dresden still has its treasures and its archives. I explain that people in the city government were already convinced in 1942 that the city was eventually going to be hit. All the artwork, archives, etc. were moved out of the city at that time.

Meanwhile I had also heard, mostly from older people who were in Dresden at that time that they were all living under the illusion that Dresden would be spared. In fact, not until the last few years when rationing was a part of everyday life, did they really feel the effects of the war (unless they were Jewish, of course). Albeit they were children at that time, and may have been sheltered from fears of bombing by their parents, but a certain amount of denial may have been present among the adults too.

And here, in 2014, in an archeological pit in the center of the city, the archeologist shows us tunnels lined with 20th century brick that connected all the basements together, so that if a building got bombed and the inhabitants were trapped in the bomb shelter-basement downstairs, they had access to the neighboring building and could get out. Wouldn’t you think if the city came to you during WWII and built these passageways, that you might be a bit concerned? It conflicted with what I had been told.

The WWII history of Dresden has not been fully examined. It can’t have been because it wasn’t that long ago in a historical sense. People are still examining the records and coming up with newer interpretations. Once these tunnels are demolished, the remains of evidence contrary to what many people believe is gone. And this, for me, is the problem with demolishing historical and archeological records – you often don’t know what is going to become important in the future until it’s too late.

That means if you are visiting Dresden, definitely take a peek at the digs around the Neumarkt! Take pictures! Read the signs (they’re in English in some places). And remember the next time you come back, they will be gone and all we will have are your photos!!

Contributed by Karen Reimann