Noble couple buried on 10th c. palace grounds

The skeletal remains of a woman with missing face bones and a hollowed out skull were unearthed at the site of the 10th century Royal Palace of Helfta in Eisleben in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The woman’s grave was next to that of a high-status man believed to have been her husband. While both skeletons were found at the same depth less than a foot beneath the surface, the man’s skull and facial bones are intact.

The first remains of the Helfta palace of Otto the Great, King of Germany from 936 until 973, and Holy Roman Emperor from 962 until his death in 973, were discovered in 2009 by geophysical investigations. When the palace was built, kings of Germany did not rule from a single permanent capital. They traveled throughout the year from palace to palace. Saxony was Otto’s home duchy, however, and the palace at Helfta was of particular importance. The geophysical study revealed there was an extensive complex of residential and commercial structures and fortifications covering 12 hectares on the Kleine Klaus hill at Helfta just west of the modern city of Eisleben.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology (LDA) began excavations at the site in May 2021. That summer they uncovered the foundations of a church built by Otto before 968, previously only known from historical accounts. Huge at 98 feet long and 66 feet wide, it was dedicated to 6th century Thuringian princess Saint Radegund. Chroniclers report that Otto was personally present at its inauguration. A cemetery associated with the church containing 70 graves and several stone tombs from the 10th through the 15th centuries was also uncovered. This is where the members of the region’s aristocratic families were buried, as evidenced by the fine jewelry, knives, coins and accessories found in the graves.

The 2022 excavation unearthed the remains of the main building of the royal palace, the so-called Palatium, where Otto the Great and his son and successor Emperor Otto II resided. It was a stone building constructed on a high point on a hill near the church. It was approximately 66 feet long 40 feet wide and had two floors with plastered walls and a basement. It even had a central heating system. The team also discovered evidence that the site had been a power base predating the Ottonian Palatinate, including the remains of a large sections of wall and a fortification ditch from the early Middle Ages.

This year’s excavation revealed fortified homes like small castles. The graves of the woman and man were found next to the castles. There are no grave goods or adornments in the woman’s grave. The man’s grave was replete with grave goods emblematic of his status as a military leader: a knife, a belt set and the metal fittings of an official staff like those carried by generals. Archaeologists believe he was the manager of the castle.

The bones are currently being studied in a laboratory where they will be radiocarbon dated and analyzed for potential causes of death. Researchers hope to determine what happened to sheer off the woman’s face and the top of her skull, whether it was agricultural equipment interfering with the burial or something else. If her head was damaged by an encounter with the business end of a plough, for example, there is no clear evidence of it in the soil around her, nor was her companion damaged by the same equipment.

Another mystery is the disparity between their grave goods. It’s very unusual for the women in the couple to be buried without a single grave good while the man is fully accessorized. It’s possible she was Christian and he was not. Christians deliberately rejected the accoutrements typical of pre-Christian burials as articles of faith.