- Skeletons found in the churches of Tallinn have not been previously thoroughly documented.
- The tombs under the concrete floor of the St. Nicholas Church were surprisingly well preserved.
- The former cemetery extended from the church wall all the way to the street.
Recent excavations inside the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn and next to the building brought several pleasant surprises to archaeologists in the form of well-preserved funerals.
Under the direction of Martin Malve, a bone researcher at the University of Tartu, the first excavations inside the church were made under the tower, which is planned to be fitted with an elevator to carry visitors to the church tower. “It was known that central heating pipes were laid here in the 1970s, and it could be assumed that everything had been messed up and no tombstones had survived there,” Malve said. But as soon as the Soviet-era concrete floor was removed, they discovered four tombs. These were only partially damaged and 25 skeletons dating from the 18th century were excavated.
They first excavated some stone walls the purpose of which remained unclear. Individual human bones were also discovered and further digging revealed the tombs. “The enclosures are made of brick walls laid side by side with their insides covered with plaster. The use of plaster shows that those buried there had a lot of money. We also found fragments of grave slabs which used to cover the tombs. It was also surprising that in the limestone city of Tallinn the walls were made of bricks,” Malve said.
The contents of the tombs were abundant and copper-alloy coffin decorations were found as well. The partly well-preserved coffins were covered with velvet on the outside and silk textiles on the inside. The floor of at least one tomb was made of limestone slabs.
“We know that at least one tomb in the part under the tower was used by the St. Canute Guild. We don’t know yet which, but it can be seen that this was the burial place of rich merchants and craftsmen,” Malve said.
According to him, the burials date back to the 18th century. The coffins are partly very well preserved. The women found in the tombs had necklaces of glass beads, earrings, headdresses, hair nets, and a lot of textiles have survived. These people were buried in the best and most festive clothing.
Archaeologists rarely have the opportunity to excavate such tombs. “My last time was the Teller Chapel in Raadi Cemetery of Tartu in 2017, which had been ruined during the Soviet period. But everything was nicely in its proper place here. I witnessed such well-preserved tombs in the Münnich Chapel of St. John’s Church in Tartu in the end of the 1980s,” said Malve.
He added that this is definitely an important finding in the context of research of burial sites. “First of all, it had been preserved so thoroughly. We have the coffins, the skeletons, jewelry, so it is possible to study prosperous Tallinn residents of the 18th century in all details. And the coffins tell a lot about the burial customs of that time,” the archaeologist explained.
After the excavations in the church were completed, it appeared that a new water pipeline had to be placed next to the church so water for fire fighting could reach the church tower if necessary. Therefore a trench for the water pipe was dug and this revealed yet another extraordinary find, a common grave.
“Common graves have been found in the city cemeteries before, but here was the cemetery of the St. Nicholas congregation, where people were buried in individual graves. Eight skeletons were found in the collective grave and in addition there were seven other individual burials. These were higher in the ground, all in coffins, and probably date back to the 17th to the 18th centuries. In the common grave they were all buried according to Christian custom, heads towards the west. They are all neatly laid in one grave, hands folded together. “They had not been thrown there in a hurry, as in the case of war graves, but since they died together, probably because of the plague, they were buried like that at the same time,” said Malve. He suggested that the common grave could date back to the 16th –17th centuries. It is known that there were several outbreaks of plague in Estonia around the Livonian War, and these may have been the victims of one of them.