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Digging up a park’s past

By Jan Hawley, photo: Benedikt Wyss/Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt

St. Johanns-Park has not always been the pleasant green space it is today.

If you have been near the St. Johanns-Park recently, you probably noticed that a section of it has been fenced off. People wearing hardhats and carrying trowels and clipboards have set to work in a restricted area where locals used to go to relax and enjoy a lovely view of the Rhine. The reason behind these works: the park’s past has been brought to light.

Originally, from the 14th to mid-19th century the park area, which then lay outside the city limits, was farmland. In 1845 Basel’s authorities then decided to create a cemetery here to serve the new public hospital nearby. Many of Basel’s underprivileged men and women who suffered from harsh living conditions and debilitating diseases came to the hospital for treatment. More than 2’500 of those hospital patients did not survive and were buried in its riverside cemetery. Detailed treatment and death records of all the patients, however, did survive and are stored in the Basel Archives.

By 1868 the cemetery was full to capacity and had to be closed. It fell into a state of disrepair and became a disposal site for slaughterhouse waste. In 1885 the area was turned into a plant nursery. The nursery closed in 1985 and the abandoned greenhouses were used as a cultural gathering spot by local teens and young adults.

In the late 1980s the terrain started to shift in the direction of the river. The buildings were torn down and the public voted in favour of creating a neighbourhood park on the site. This enabled Basel’s archaeologists to carry out a rescue excavation of 1,061 graves at risk. The skeletal remains were then taken to the Natural History Museum for anthropological research.

In March 2015 a second rescue excavation was initiated. Underground pipelines are to be laid in the park, including the fenced area where graves are still present. The excavation entails documenting, unveiling and removing the skeletal remains and artefacts in about 50 graves. The work, which is being carried out by an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists, is expected to be finished by the end of April. Thanks to interdisciplinary collaboration the examination of skeletons today reveals a multitude of potential new insights.

More information here: www.archaeologie.bs.ch

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