Whence the Earliest Berliners? (Part 1)

This week, I'm hanging out in Chapel Hill at the Isotope Geochemistry Lab on UNC's campus.  I'm here to process human dental enamel from Medieval Germans for strontium, to test the hypothesis that the earliest residents of modern Berlin migrated east from Cologne.

A bit of background for this project: In the early 13th century AD, two towns were built on opposite sides of the Spree River.  Called Berlin (or, sometimes, Altberlin) and Cölln, they eventually became one city in the 18th century (modern Berlin).  Although there are early historical records mentioning each 13th century city (specifically, a document from 1237 signed by one Symeon, the priest of Cölln), the information is sparse.

Here's where archaeology comes in.  From about 2007 to 2010, archaeologists Claudia Melisch and Jamie Sewell excavated a cemetery associated with Cölln called Petriplatz (St. Peter's Square).  From the 13th-18th centuries, they found over 3,700 burials, meaning this is currently the most significant osteological find in Medieval Germany.  These skeletons, particularly the ones from the earliest phases, have the potential to reveal information about who the earliest Berliners were and where they came from.

Skeletons from Petriplatz excavations.
Photo, Fig. 9, Melisch & Sewell 2011.
Historians think that Medieval Berlin may have been settled by people from the west.  The general eastward movement in Medieval Germany is known to historians as Ostsiedlung (Higounet 1986), and there is also a suggestion that the similarity in name between Köln (Cologne) and Cölln means early Berlin was founded by people from Cologne.  Helpfully, the geology of Cologne and Berlin is generally pretty different; sure, there's overlap, but it is likely that people who grew up in Cologne will have a different strontium isotope signature than the people who grew up in Berlin.

So that's where I come in.  It has been extremely difficult for Claudia to get large-scale funding for this project, as funding for research is down in Europe as in the US.  I figured that I could get a bit of internal funding from UWF, though, to run a couple dozen samples for strontium isotopes.  If this pilot study reveals something interesting, perhaps we can parlay that into a bigger grant in the future.  I'd like to be doing oxygen isotope analysis in conjunction with the strontium, but I don't have the money, time, or mass spec to run light isotopes at the moment.  But since I have plenty of enamel, I hope that this analysis can be done in the near future.

I should have results pretty soon, although interpretation will take a bit longer since I'll have to do some super-fun (really!) geological research on what the expected strontium range should be.  Until then, here's a picture from the lab this week...

17 Medieval Berliners, all in a row!
(Eluting strontium using teeny tiny columns into teeny tiny beakers)

C. Higounet. 1986. Die deutsche Ostsiedlung im Mittelalter. Berlin: Siedler.

C.M. Melisch, & J.P. Sewell (2011). Historische Chance – eine umfangreiche, mittelalterliche bis neuzeitliche Skelettserie vom ehemaligen St. Petri-Kirchhof in Berlin-Mitte. Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, 32, 107-120. [PDF]


Mark Clemente said…
I can't wait to hear about the results from the analysis. This is one thing that has always intrigued me. I'm hoping to do something along these lines during grad school. Hope to hear an update soon. :)
Shaunpk1 said…
Not only interesting, this is also very important work. Please keep up the work,

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