The Biserica Neagră excavations
Brașov, Transylvania, Romania: between 2012 and 2013 archaeologists carried out rescue excavations in the area surrounding St. Mary’s church, better known as Biserica Neagră (the ‘Black Church’) after a devastating fire in the 17th century. A complex stratigraphy was unearthed in Honterus' courtyard, including:
1) A large cemetery, consisting of 1,476 burials and annexed religious structures;
2) The remnants of several architectural structures, from the earlier wooden dwellings to the clay and stone masonry buildings;
3) Over 12,000 artefacts, ranging from potsherds to sophisticated personal adornments.
Biserica Neagră is a historically and architecturally outstanding Gothic monument, the biggest of its kind in Eastern Europe. Originally named St. Mary's church, its history intertwines with the development of the city of Braşov, founded by one of the Saxon (German) colonies which were relocated by the Hungarian rulers to Transylvania from the beginning of the 13th century AD.
Located in the heart of the Carpathians, Braşov was for centuries a crossroad for travellers, merchants and diplomats from central Europe and the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, the city centre was mainly occupied by the wealthy Saxon community, while three suburbs outside the walls of Brașov were inhabited by the Romanian, Hungarian and Saxon peasantry. The city also became the most inhabited settlement in Transylvania, with around 2,000 people in 1489.
Members of the Saxon community would have been buried in the cemetery surrounding the Black Church; their mortal remains are now collected in the Biserica Neagră skeletal assemblage.
Second half of the 12th century – first decade of the 13th century: Latin and German hospites in Transylvania
1235: First documentary mention of Braşov as Corona
1370-1477: St. Mary’s church foundation
1388: Cistercian chapel and parish cemetery
14th – 15th century: Braşov is an important economic and political urban centre
1689: The Great Fire destroys most of the city centre, including St. Mary's church - called Biserica Neagră (Black Church) henceforth
The cemetery and
the skeletal assemblage
Biserica Neagră’s cemetery is one of the largest medieval urban cemeteries yet excavated in Transylvania and presents some features typical of medieval Christian cemeteries, whilst some other elements make it a one-of-a-kind site:
• Intensely occupied, with areas with up to 15 overlapping burials
• Six stratigraphic layers (on average) and different orientations
• Little or no grave goods (5% datable);
• Simple ritual, mostly individual graves
• Long period of use (AD 1200-1800)
• Complex and diverse contexts (individual graves, ossuaries, family graves, and burial clusters)
The Black Church Cemetery Project
The importance of the Biserica Neagră skeletal assemblage is undeniable. The good state of preservation of the majority of skeletal remains, the availability of recent archaeological records (including site photographs of each burial context), and the size of the assemblage make it an ideal, if not essential, tool for the reconstruction of population dynamics in this area, where historical sources can sometimes be rather limited. Research on this assemblage will greatly contribute to the development of bioarchaeology in Romania.
The BCCP was established in 2013, when 200 burials were analysed as part of a PhD research conducted at the University of Edinburgh (UK). The successful completion of the latter allowed the publication of the results of a pilot study (see Publications) and showed the enormous potential of the assemblage and associated archaeological contexts.
Over the next few years the BCCP aims to continue shed light on the origin and development of this Transylvanian urban centre over a period of five centuries by linking bioarchaeological evidence to historical events and introducing new methods and approaches in Romanian archaeology.