Archaeologists have exhumed a 1,000-year-old sarcophagus in Mainz, Germany, uncovering the decomposed remains of what could be a former Archbishop who died in the 11th century.
Excavations within the St. Johannis Church, which is one of the oldest in the city, uncovered the first signs of the stone coffin in 2017, when a corner of the receptacle was revealed beneath the church floor.
Following months of preparation and a layer-by-layer excavation of the sarcophagus, the 14-strong team managed to open the 700-kilogram stone lid Tuesday using a pulley system and were able to look inside for the first time.
“Such a long preparation time and then the lid opens,” said Guido Faccani, the lead archaeologist. “That was a unique moment. We quickly discovered that many scraps of fabric were present in the sarcophagus.”
Mainz dean Andreas Klodt told a news conference that everyone in the church “got to feel a little bit like Indiana Jones.”
“So many generations of us have sung, doubted, prayed and hoped in this building,” Klodt added. “I am proud that we have builders in this church and can celebrate Mass.”
Volker Jung, the president of the Evangelical Church in Hessen and Nassau, described the opening as a “very exciting, but also spiritually moving event.”
The bones of the individual buried in the sarcophagus were, however, completely decayed. “Not even teeth could be found,” Faccani said. “The deceased was likely doused in quicklime at the time of his burial in order to speed up the decaying process.”
The samples of fabric uncovered within the sarcophagus will now be sent to a textile expert in order to determine their age. Bone and tissue samples will also undergo carbon dating and DNA testing.
The contents of the sarcophagus are expected to be investigated for a further two weeks, however the exact length of the research is unknown. “Science lasts as long as it lasts,” Faccani said.
Following the opening of the sarcophagus, Birgit Pfeiffer, the president of the protestant deanery of Mainz, described the discovery as fascinating, but also said it presented them with a “great responsibility.”
“We were speechless, fascinated by the opening of the sarcophagus. Now it will be a great challenge for us to deal with the discoveries and the church, and how to make it accessible to the general public.”
Who was in the sarcophagus?
Experts believe that the remains discovered in the sarcophagus belong to a clergyman, as the individual was buried in a central location in the nave of the church, pointing towards the altar.
The remains could have belonged to Erkanbald, who was Archbishop of Mainz from 1011 until his death in 1021. “It’s still possible that it’s him,” Faccani said.
The researchers have noted, however, that further research is required before the identity of the individual, and the time in which they lived, can be confirmed.
A research campaign was launched in 2013 as part of planned renovation of the church in order to learn more about the origins of the site. Roman secular buildings are believed to form the foundations of the site, and the church itself is believed to date from the 11th century.
The total cost of the excavations between 2013 and today have amounted to 7 million euros ($7.9 million).