BOHemia - MORavia


Archaeological Report: 
Discovery and Protection of a Medieval Cemetery at Prague's New Town

In the recent time, the cause of an abolished Jewish cemetery located on Vladislavova Street at Prague's New Town has attracted much public attention. Such interest is closely related to the construction activities pursued by the Czech Insurance Company on Lots No. 76/II and 1390/II in the given locality. Let us review the complicated building project from the perspective of monument protection.


The memory of a long-abolished medieval cemetery in the area circumscribed by today's Jungmannova, Lazarska, Spalena, and Purkynova Streets has never become completely extinct. The founding of this cemetery goes back to at least 1254. In that year, the Czech king Premysl Ottokar II issued two documents concerning the Czech Jewry. A charter dated March 29, 1254 stated certain Jewish rights; among others, it stipulated that an attack on a Jewish cemetery was punishable by death. This passage (like the remaining portions of the document) mentioned no concrete location in the Czech kingdom - it represented a general legal rule. However, traditionally, this passage has been considered - unfortunately quite uncritically - to be the first mention of the above named Jewish cemetery. Consequently, this Prague cemetery has been widely presented as the only - and therefore the oldest - Jewish cemetery in Bohemia at the time. The reality, as always, proves to be much more complex. Seven months later, on October 23, 1254, King Premysl Ottokar II issued another charter confirming two documents by the Pope Innocent IV from 1246 and 1253 and making them binding for the Czech kingdom. Annexes to these royal dictums mention, without any enumeration, also synagogues and cemeteries existing in the kingdom. Precisely the use of the plural form seems to corroborate the existence of a certain number of Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia in the years immediately following 1250. Logically, it has been assumed that this mention included the Prague cemetery since the existence of the Jewish settlement in Prague is documented beyond any doubt already for the end of the 11th  century. Nevertheless, strictly speaking, the New Town Jewish cemetery was first mentioned in written sources only in 1341. Its subsequent existence until 1478 when it was abolished by King Ladislas Jagiello does not raise any doubts. After the cemetery was abolished, its entire expanse was parcelled and subsequently built-up. Barring very few exceptions, the late gothic structures in this area were completely demolished in the course of a redevelopment which took place chiefly at the beginning of the 20th century.


Precisely in view of the two assumed radical interventions into the integrity of the former cemetery, chances to come across any significant undestroyed areas were considered very slight indeed. During the recent periods of construction activities conducted in the 20th century, no preserved grave sites were discovered. The only exception represented human skeletal remains located by a static survey performed in 1982 underneath the cellar floor of building No. 1390/II. In a brief published report concerning the 1982 discovery, another find, a skeleton unearthed in building No. 1477/II in 1970 was also mentioned. However, in a previous report of this archaeological undertaking, no discovery of human remains was indicated.

The expert reports prepared by the Department of Archaeology of Prague's Monument Protection Authority (PUPP) on May 31, 1995 and April 24, 1996 were based on the above described state of knowledge. Both expert reports stipulated the conditions for an extensive construction project to be realized on lots 76/II and 1390/II and agreed with the construction of un underground parking lot conditional on a preceding archaeological conservation survey. The consent to build as well as a condition to perform a preceding archaeological conservation survey were also contained in two decisions adopted by the Department of Monument Protection of the Municipal Council of the Capital Prague on June 5, 1995 and April 24, 1996. These decisions were issued on the basis of the above mentioned expert reports prepared by the Prague Monument Protection Authority. After a hearing at the Prague Board of Archaeology, the Department of Archaeology of the Prague Monument Protection Authority was entrusted with performing the requested archaeological survey.

The construction work got under way based on the respective affirmative opinion and decision. In accordance with the above mentioned materials, a stage-by-stage archaeological survey was scheduled by mutual agreement of the parties involved. This survey began in 1997 underneath the half-basement floor of a subsequently demolished building No. 1390/II. By the decision of the Chief Rabbi Efraim K. Sidon, the survey was continuously monitored by Dr. Alexander Putik, a member of the Jewish Community in Prague and expert of the Jewish Museum. According to a mutual agreement, human remains discovered on the site were documented, analyzed from the anthropological point of view, and handed over to the Jewish Community for immediate reburial.


The survey itself was conducted from May to September 1997. During this first stage, approximately one half of the archaeological zone was surveyed (350 square meters / 3250 square feet out of 600 square meters / 5575 square feet). During the planning of the second stage of the survey of Lot No. 1390/II, previous archaeological surveys performed in the surrounding area were considered as well as analysis of the written historical sources. Based on such information and on the results of the first probes performed within the framework of the actual survey, it was established  that in the basement of building No. 1390/II and in the adjacent courtyard between spot heights 194.87 and 193.00 above sea level, there was an archaeological layer approximately 1.8 meters (6 feet) thick: the basement represented no 'traditional' cellar but a certain type of half-basement; under its floor, the lower part of the cultural stratum had remained intact (this historical layer had been destroyed in the surrounding houses with typical deep cellars). The Lot No. 1390/II is located in the southern part of Prague's New Town, namely, according to a geological report prepared by Mr. J. Kovanda, on the slope of the so called Wenceslas-Square terrace. From this information, it became evident that the survey might lead to a discovery of preserved medieval graves. The excavations were conducted to spot height 193.00 above sea level (underneath a layer of ochrous sandy clays); the highest point of this clay layer covering the sand banks of the Wenceslas-Square terrace (194.27 m above sea level) was detected at 194.27 m above sea level. According to the results obtained by the archaeological survey, the Jewish burial ground supplied material evidence of the earliest human activity in the area; however, this burial ground can be dated merely only on the basis of written records, namely to the period before 1478.

The time of the first burials at this cemetery could not be exactly determined since the grave sites (in total, eighty-eight graves have been examined) did not contain any objects allowing to date the individual graves. Only in one grave (No. H 64), a shard (datable approximately to the 14th or the beginning of the 15th century) and two round thorn buckles were found. Simplicity and austerity is characteristic for the Jewish burial rite. According to this rite, dead bodies could only be wrapped in shrouds. Deceased members of the Diaspora could be buried with a small pouch containing soil from Eretz Israel; this pouch was customarily placed under the head of the deceased.

According to Jewish religious customs, the social status of the dead person had to be indistinguishable. Diaspora Jews usually possessed very few burial grounds in a given country; consequently, their dead had to be brought to a cemetery from distant locations. This fact is corroborated by the contemporary customs statutes allowing Jews duty-free transportation of dead bodies. The Jewish dead were brought to the cemeteries in wooden coffins. A reverent relation to the defunct can also be observed in the approach to the cemetery arrangements. Each deceased person had the right to their own grave: no one was allowed to disturb the peace of their grave site. The archaeological survey performed at the cemetery on Vladislavova Street revealed the painstaking effort to avoid any damage to older graves while digging new ones. This was in sharp contrast to the usual practice observable at Christian cemeteries. Space at the Jewish cemetery was very scarce; therefore, the graves were positioned very close to each other. As a result, in several cases, the walls of some older graves collapsed while the later graves were being dug. Only two superpositions of graves have been discovered so far. However, no coffins containing human remains were damaged due to a subsequent burial.


The burial ground underneath today's Vladislavova Street provides a classic example of the above mentioned simple burial rite. The dead were entombed in the supine position, their heads pointing westward. In about one third of the cases, this orientation was slightly deflected towards the south; the arms of the dead were customarily positioned beside the torso (their hands were sometimes placed under the pelvis). The remains rested in simple wooden coffins without any additional burial objects. However, some remarkable features not mentioned in written sources on Jewish sepulchral customs have been discovered during the present archaeological survey. Some of the defunct had their eyes and mouths covered by slate chips; others were equipped for their last journey with two round stones (10 to 20 cm - 4 to 8 inches in diameter) placed near their ankles or on their toes. Since the survey has not yet been completed, it is impossible to evaluate the frequency of such peculiarities and speculate about their meaning. Likewise, it is too early to evaluate the use of nails in coffins. In the future, issues related to the rite will be consulted with Dr. A. Putik from the Jewish Museum in Prague and with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. An immense surprise represented the discovery of a mass grave (grave site H 7) containing remnants of several human bodies and animal bones (ox, chicken, grey crow). Since the archaeological expertise currently prepared by Mr. V. Kuzelka from the National Museum in Prague is still incomplete, any interpretation would be premature. The content of grave site H7 certainly represents a phenomenon unparalleled in the Jewish culture. Preliminarily, it can be stated that the remnants belonging to several individuals (some of them bearing signs of exposure to extreme heat) were placed in a wooden coffin (60 by 100 centimeters / 24 by 40 inches): these may be remnants of victims of a blaze or a pogrom. The information obtained during the survey will undoubtedly contribute to our knowledge of the medieval burial rite which was more varied than the regulations of the Chevrah Kaddisha might suggest.


The fact that the entire area was parcelled out after the cemetery had been abolished in 1478 is clearly confirmed by the discovery of a spacious object which, at one point, invaded the grave sites. This object contained pottery from the second half of the 15th century. Detecting probes performed in 1998 in one section of the courtyard of building 76/II (originally, this building had no cellar), revealed a well preserved top stratum of the Jewish burial ground. In parts of the area where houses with cellars were build, the cemetery had been completely destroyed due to such past construction activities.

In the second half of the year 1998, negotiations aimed at the rescue of the remaining part of the cemetery located on the property of the Czech Insurance Company were launched. They were initiated from outside the Jewish Community, by Mr. J. Tellec and Mr. K. Berka, Prof. Eng. Following their presentation at a meeting of Prague's Municipal Council, a wide interest to protect the preserved remnants of the cemetery from the adverse influence of construction activities was raised. In the course of the subsequent negotiations, the Czech Insurance Company insisted on completing the construction in the originally intended scope outlined in the already existing project documentation (involving the construction of a multi-story underground complex occupying the entire lot); at that point, all respective projects submitted by the investor had already been approved by the state authorities. The offer made by the Czech Insurance Company at that point included establishing an exhibit or a memorial hall in its newly reconstructed building. No agreement with the Jewish Community in Prague was reached; since the construction activities continued, the second stage of the archaeological survey began in March 1999 on a site previously undestroyed by cellars.

First, the northern half of the courtyard was explored. Besides the recent interventions (construction excavation, sewage system, and various mains systems) a layer of dark-colored humus soil containing pottery fragments from the end of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century covering the cemetery stratum was excavated. Naturally, this layer had formed shortly after the abolishment of the cemetery. Underneath all areas where this layer was detected, the top stratum of the cemetery was 20 - 40 cm (8 - 16 inches) thick. This layer of the archaeologically explored floor (sandy clay found on top of the Moldau terrace) is characterized by a large number of small fragments of sandstone and tonschiefer rock (building material typically used in medieval Prague). In the basement of building 1390/II explored in 1997, this stratum had been destroyed; therefore, this discovery possesses a considerable value. From the preserved stratum protruded upright slate and tonschiefer slabs used to encase the individual grave shafts. So far, about one quarter of the graves discovered at this location show such encasement. In about four cases, the grave was encased by pieces (halves or thirds) of flat millstones. This type of encased grave shaft arrangement is new to us: it was not observed in graves found under the floor of the half-basement on lot No. 1390/II. The probable explanation for the absence of any encasement on Lot No. 1390/II is that these relatively large slabs were pulled out during the construction of the half-basement and consequently disappeared from the lower portions of the graves while the human skeletons remained intact. The contours of the individual graves appeared only after the removal of the top layer.

At the present moment, it is still impossible to estimate the total number of graves. In the northern part of the courtyard where the exploration progressed most, the existence of about ninety graves is assumed; in the remaining two thirds of the courtyard, the top layer has so far not been removed. A significant discovery represent about two dozen small fragments of tonschiefer tombstones with remnants of inscriptions; these fragments lay dispersed in the upper part of the stratum.


Simultaneously with the ongoing exploration, legal steps were taken to ensure better protection of the Jewish cemetery. On January 27, 1999, based on an initiative of the Chief Rabbi, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic was presented with a proposal prepared by the Institute of Archaeology to officially register the whole locality as an archaeological monument. The Czech Insurance Company was informed by the Czech Ministry of Culture about the initiation of the respective process by a letter dated April 26, 1999. In this letter, the Czech Insurance Company was advised that it was its legal duty to protect the locality from damage or destruction. In view of this fact - and with regard to the continuing negotiations - the archaeological survey was reduced to a scope ensuring the protection of the skeletal remains from any intervention; on June 2, 1999, the actual excavation component of the survey was completely halted. Since the outcome of the negotiations could not be foreseen, the excavations were not backfilled. In the meantime, some of the sections under examination suffered damage due to heavy rainfall; several archaeological sites are presently endangered by an eminent landslide. This could entail the destruction of some graves affected by earlier earthworks, above all by the construction of the mains systems. In such endangered locations, the remaining parts of the individual graves were unearthed to prevent them from collapse and destruction.

The effort to preserve the integrity of the cemetery has met with a considerable international response. Among others, the representatives of the United States Commission for the Preservation of American Cultural Heritage Abroad showed their interest in this issue. The latest negotiations regarding the future of the cemetery (initiated by the Mayor of Prague) took place on June 14, 1999. The negotiations resulted in an understanding that the Institute of Archaeology  would soon present the Ministry of Culture with its new proposal to register Lot 76/II as an archaeological monument and the filed proposal will be promptly processed by the Ministry. The problem remains how to resolve the issue of funds already spent on the construction project by the Czech Insurance Company; until the present moment, its spending has already reached the order of hundreds of millions of Czech crowns.

In our opinion, the above described facts clearly show the importance of the locality. It widens our knowledge of the historical development in this part of Prague's New Town. Moreover, the exploration performed so far has great significance in the all-European context: on the entire continent, only few medieval Jewish cemeteries have been archaeologically explored. An extensive exploration documenting 171 graves from the 11th century to the late 14th century (1391) was conducted in Spain in the years 1945 to 1946 on the Montjuich Hill near Barcelona. Best researched and published is a medieval Jewish cemetery in York in the United Kingdom; the respective research results were published. A thorough archaeological exploration of the York cemetery took place from 1982 to 1983 on a site which was subsequently converted into an underground parking lot. The exploration of almost 500 graves followed by an exhaustive anthropological analysis unparalleled in Europe also showed a shift in the approach of the Jewish community with regard to construction projects. The results of the most recent exploration of a French locality from the 13th-14th century in Ennezat near Clermont-Ferrand where so far 32 graves were discovered (20 of them have been explored) have remained unpublished.

From a purely archaeological point of view, we must admit that our approach to the solution of the present stalemate is not unequivocal. Should the preserved sections of the Jewish cemetery on Lot No. 76/II remain intact, it would certainly contribute to the preservation of a larger authenticity of the underground component of Prague's protected monument area. Any possible continuation of the construction work conducted on this location is subject conditional on a preceding preserving archaeological research which could widen our knowledge about this until recently almost unknown chapter in Prague's history. Moreover, is such a case, a substantial portion of this cemetery would be preserved in the courtyards of the existing structures (two sizable blocks of houses) in Prague's New Town. Though a negotiation process is underway to officially declare the whole locality an archaeological monument, we consider the issue of a reverent approach to human remains required by the Jewish religious precepts to have paramount importance.


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