Posted by: Nazausgraben | August 6, 2010


Day 24.  The excavation continues. Approximately 12 inches of earth below the original tiles covering the Sanctuary floor have been removed, except for the two areas where the tiles seem to have collapsed into the floor. There is something underneath…or more importantly, something missing underneath….and the archeologists wish to find out what.

The floor of the medieval sanctuary. The Baroque High Altar is out of the picture at the top. Before it is the large circular area of ancient collapsed tiles (one of two) covering....what?

This inquiry must wait for the moment, as it is necessary to first continue digging the trench around either side of the High Altar. Doing so reveals a 15th century treasure; pieces of painted frescoes are found buried in the dirt. All of the pieces are lightly swept clean before being lifted from a corner of the trench next to the Altar. Once removed from their five century-old bed of soil, they are placed on the upper step of the nearby Altar. We observe that the pieces vary, the largest being about the shape and size of an opened adult palm and the smallest the size of a thumbnail. The colors are still bright…reds, browns, tans, whites….it is clearly a small portion of a much larger medieval work.

It is the largest piece that immediately catches our attention. It is the cleanest of the find and we can clearly see that it has been painted. All we can tell at this point is that it shows the forehead and upper scalp of a figure. The hair is dark, parted in the center and surrounded by a halo (Heiligenschein). There are no facial features to be seen; that portion is missing from this small piece. Other small pieces have been found nearby; they are not as clean and it is difficult to identify any images without their being first cleaned. However, as all of the pieces have been unearthed within one small corner of the trench, we suspect that they may all have the same origin; a depiction of Christ that might have been part of a vase, a tile from an altar, perhaps even from a wall or ceiling painting.

At this stage in the exploration of the Nave and Sanctuary, the archeologists are speculating that the 1414 chapel might not have been simply destroyed for the building of the current Baroque Ulrichskirche. There is evidence to suggest that the older chapel might have been altered…modified (modernists would say, updated) to reflect 17th century liturgical and cultural expression.  This practice was not an uncommon characteristic of ‘Barockizierung’…the altering of pre-Baroque period (Medieval and Renaissance) structures to reflect Baroque style. 

Here one can see the turn from the austere inner-directed reflective religiosity that existed from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance to the more joyous outward expression of holiness that appears in the art and architecture of the late 17th to early 19th centuries. There was a realization that the sacred could also be outwardly expressed in a joyous form; that the exultation of the Gloria could be brought forth visually and aurally in a manner paralleling the changing  physicality of the time. The movement from the darkened somber majesties into the explosion of color. Mystery was joined by celebration; inner-directed contemplation was accompanied by (and not substituted with) the no less transcendent external expressions of the sacred.

Thus, it is only during such renovation projects that one today can really explore below the layers of see what remains…to hold in ones hand a sculpted angelic puti, shard of medieval glass…a silver 16th century coin….a piece of fresco…part of a neck and lip of an ancient ceramic vase. Such finds create an almost visceral desire to keep on digging…to expand the area and go even deeper into the seek out and hopefully find even older, more wonderful remnants of times very long past.

I could sense this in one of the archeologists who, upon seeing my joy at holding a very ancient wafer thin Austrian coin.  “It’s medieval. Now, finding a Roman coin or something even older…now that’s something of interest,” he shrugged. For an American, something from the 18th century is quite a find; it was thus difficult for me to understand the lackluster reaction to finding an intact very beautiful medieval piece.

We have gone quite deep; a full four feet or so down from the ground-level at which this project began. It’s deep enough…the full wall and foundation on the side of and common to both the original and 1414 chapels has been exposed to 21st century Austrian air. Now new measurements must be made and photographs taken. There’s no real digging left to do; the excavation phase of the grand renovation project is complete. It’s time for me to wait. It is a very short wait indeed.

I meet Gebi some days later at a Summer Pinswanger Musikkapelle concert. He walks over to me, a wide smile on his face. “Can you help out at the Ulrichskirche on Tuesday?”

“Yes, of course…but, what is there to do?”

Gebi’s smile widened, “They want to dig deeper…to see what is below. The archeologists think there might be something even older abit further down.”

Even older??!! With Celtic artifacts having been discovered in a mound at the foot of the Schloss im Loch on the nearby Via Claudia…perhaps..the hill upon which the Ulrichs chapels and church had been built was, as earlier noted, the highest most strategic point in Pinswang. Could the Celts or Romans have conducted pagan worship rites on this now hallowed ground?

Oh yes…..I will be there.

Day 27.  There are only a few of us at the Church; in addition to the archeologists, there is Robert, the Gemeindearbeiter. Robert holds one of the most important posts in all of Pinswang governance. He is, in essence, the Chief Engineer of the entire village. For every project, from major construction to ensuring that garbage is recycled correctly, Robert plays a major and indispensable role. He and I are at the Ulrichskirche awaiting the arrival of Rudl and his team. Yes…we are to dig deeper and wider.

To this point, the deepest points in the exploration were confined to large trenches in the Sanctuary and that exposing the wall and foundation of the first and second chapels. The archeologists now wanted to remove all of the remaining earth from the wall to the main entrance of the church. They suspect that it is there and directly underneath the earliest chapel that any further discoveries would be made. 

This was not a function of pure curiosity on the part of the archeologists that lead to this decision. Rather, it was the notion that as Europe became Christian,  it was common practice in the times of the early church not necessarily to destroy the ‘old pagan ways’…but to transmogrify or cover them. One need only travel to the Roman Forum to see that the earliest Churches actually incorporated some of the Roman temple ruins into their structure. Pillars are seen to be embedded into now exposed church walls and the foundations that supported towering pagan structures now provide a base for the most beautiful of Christian architecture.  It is with this in mind that we are to dig even further.

Rudl and a colleague arrive with their large tractors, tracked excavators and dumpsters. We build a ramp of packed sand that has been transported down from one of the local high mountain grazing lands…an Alm. It is dry packed hard sand that could support the many tons of excavator and tracked dumpster. We work feverishly, spreading and hard packing each load of sand as it is poured down into the open pit below into the main church entranceway.

Once again, the Bagger and tracked dumpster trundle down, scoop massive loads of earth and deposit it into the same massive waiting yellow steel open-topped containers that trucks would haul away.

The rains that have been plaguing Pinswang and most of the Tirol for the past days fails to let up for a moment; all is wet, the earth below and that in the containers turns to gatsch…sticking to our workboots, gloves, clothes. It is a brisk Fall here in mid-Summer Pinswang and the chill digs deep through all our otherwise protective layers.

The archeologists use their faithful metal detector without pause and continue to search for any signs of pre-Christian history. Aside from some ceramic shards and a 15th century silver coin, nothing further is to be found. They have come upon a solid stone ‘floor’, however, that might be of some importance. At one spot in the stone there appears to be a shallow hand-dug hole approximately 1.5 feet in diameter and a few inches deep.

Rock bottom. The mysterious hole carved into the stone base under the medieval foundation can be seen in the foreground.

The archeologists will soon sweep the dust off the stone to better examine the hole. Is this stone floor the furthest down we can dig; is it now literally the rock bottom of this hill? It appears so. But what of this hole….is this evidence of the pre-Christian ritual site that until now was only the subject of idle conversation? At this point we do not know. The light is fading. The answers will have to wait.

We pack up for the day; the sun is well set and the sky has turned from a dark dank wet gray to a deep dark dank wet gray. We lock the church, clean up abit and toast the days hard work.

As I depart, I linger for an extra moment…scanning the many tons of dirt now piled into the 17 ton metal container…searching for that tiny piece of history that we somehow missed. I cannot stop thinking about that stone floor and the mysterious hole we uncovered. I also wonder what we will find as we remove the collapsed tiles in the Sanctuary.  Each level of sacred ground removed from within the Ulrichskirche has yielded another tantalizing set of mysteries.  What next?


  1. Truly exciting! To be among the first to touch and feel history that has gone unseen for hundreds of years – what an incredible and humbling experience.

  2. Hey Andy,
    This sounds like a prequel to a sequel of Michener’s book The Source. What next?
    Glad to see you’re doing well,
    Best Regards,
    Karl Zeller
    (Kari & Matt’s Papa)

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