Römisch-Germanisches Museum in KölnImage: A. Thünker, DGPh
June 3, 2012
For more than 50 years, archeologists have been excavating Roman settlements in the Cologne area. Thousands of objects have been found and attest to the prosperity of the Romans.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world are fascinated by a particular sight through a large window from the renowned Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne. Quite a few meters below is the Dionysos mosaic, one of the most fascinating mosaics still in existence today. It once covered the floor of a luxurious Roman villa which stood on the same spot. “The Dionysos mosaic is the main reason why we have a museum here today. The mosaic was found during the war when a bunker was being constructed. After the war, people decided to leave the mosaic at the same spot where it was found, and to construct a museum on top of it,” explained Friederike Naumann of the Roman-Germanic Museum. Its director, Marcus Trier, adds that the mosaic was put on display straight after the war. After all, the inhabitants of Cologne, a city that had been very heavily damaged during the war had already started to renew their interest in the long history of their city.
However, the mosaic is far from being the only attraction the museum has to offer. There is yet another treasure: the reconstructed tomb of Roman legionnaire Lucius Poblicius dating back to 40 AD. It is one of the most significant Roman tombs north of the Alps.
Glass and jewellery
Following the Roman villa style, the museum was constructed around an atrium. Right next to the famous Cologne Cathedral, these unique treasures attest to the prosperity of the Romans. One thousand glass jars found in tombs around Cologne are just some of the rarities on show. The very fine decoration is evidence of the extraordinary capabilities of Roman gaffers and glassblowers. The Cologne assortment of Roman glass art is the world's biggest collection of its kind.
Only a few steps further on, the next attraction awaits museum visitors: Pieces of jewellery from Roman times and the early Middle Ages. Museum director Marcus Trier said these items were found in Cologne, the Rhineland and other selected locations across Europe. The two main undertakings of the museum are the preservation and the presentation of ancient findings from across the Cologne area.
The main focus of the Roman-Germanic Museum is the archaeological heritage of Cologne and the surrounding area, which spans from prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages. Also on display are objects representing the culture of hunters and gatherers living in the area around 6000 BC when humans started to settle down. “As there are no written documents covering this enormous time period, we can only rely on archaeological methods if we want to learn more about it,” said Marcus Trier. Archaeologists have been doing research on the museum's numerous exhibits for more than one hundred years. They have excavated thousands of Roman tombs – among them 150 such tombs which were discovered relatively recently in the city centre. During the construction of a new underground railway system in Cologne, more than 2.5 million objects of archaeological importance were discovered, and that's just in the last ten years. Even the smallest fragments of clay pot are being meticulously examined, photographed and catalogued.
Research vs. urban planning
The museum's work often conflicts with the interests of archaeological research and modern city planning. If building contractors in Cologne excavate even the tiniest fragment of clay pot, they are required by law to immediately stop all work until the historical importance of the area and the artefact has been determined by experts. However, city planners, building contractors and architects are used to such procedures – and most are quite willing to cooperate. “When a new building is to be constructed in Cologne, we inform the authorities at quite an early stage in the process about the archaeological expectations concerning that particular site. The building contractors are being given clear dates as to when they can progress with particular phases of work. That helps them enormously with their planning. And that's crucial for us. In general, people in Cologne accept the need for archaeological work over the need for a modern city,” said Marcus Trier.
The Gods are on the way
Ever since the museum opened in 1974, fascinating exhibitions continue to be displayed. On show now is the entire 'family' of Greek Gods: Father Zeus, Hera, the mother of Gods, and siblings Athena, Aphrodite and Apollon. “This exhibition – the Return of the Gods – comes from Berlin,” explained Friederike Naumann. “Following the reunification of Germany, museums in former West and East Berlin started to cooperate with each other and bring their exhibits together. Collectively they have of an incredible amount of cultural objects which they lend out to other museums across the country." Interested museums restore one of the loaned objects in return for being able to display this wonderful collection.
Journey through time
The museum, in cooperation with other educational institutions, has developed “Project Colonia 3D,” a virtual roundtrip through the city of Cologne during Roman times. “It brings history back to life,” said Friederike Naumann, who adds that "the most important thing is we remain open, that we invite everybody to come and visit us, from kindergartens and schools, all the way up to the elderly – everybody.”