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In Church Remains, German Archaeologists Discover the Truth of ‘Atlantis of the North Sea’

Rungholt
A metal frame allows archaeological excavations of 1 square meter in the Wadden Sea tidal flats in northern Germany. Research teams excavate and document during one low tide. Photo © Ruth Blankenfeldt, Schleswig

(RNS) — Once upon a time, in the marshes of the Wadden Sea, which spans the western coasts of Denmark, Germany and parts of the Netherlands, a great center of trade and commerce arose. Known as Rungholt, the city grew rich off the the region’s abundant amber, salt and whales, and became an essential stop for North Sea traders.

However, as often follows money and power, its people grew vain and arrogant. When they first built dikes to keep the great sea at bay, they shouted back, “Defy us if you have the courage, Blanke Hans,” using a local nickname for a rough and wild sea, “White Hans.”

One Christmas morning in the 14th century, its townspeople decided to defy God himself, like the biblical builders of the Tower of Babel before them.

A group of young men tried to make a mockery of the church by tricking a priest into giving last rites to a pig disguised as a man. When the priest refused, they beat him senseless.

A lightweight measuring cart provides large-scale magnetic mapping of cultural traces hidden beneath the surface of today's mudflats in northern Germany. Photo © Dirk Bienen-Scholt, Schleswig

A lightweight measuring cart provides large-scale magnetic mapping of cultural traces hidden beneath the surface of today’s North Frisian Wadden Sea mudflats in northern Germany. Photo © Dirk Bienen-Scholt, Schleswig

Barely escaping with his life, the priest prayed that the men would be punished. God answered him with a vision — leave the island at once. Shortly thereafter, Blanke Hans found its courage. The winds roared, the waves raged, and Rungholt was wiped from the face of the earth. All its thousands of inhabitants died. It was a great drowning of men.

At least, that’s the legend, which proliferated in church sermons, chronicles and art across the region of North Frisia for six centuries. A parable about the vice of arrogance and the dangers of wealth and prosperity. As a mythic lost city, it would sometimes be called the Atlantis of the North Sea.

The reality of Rungholt is something different, a group of German archaeologists announced last month, after discovering what they believe to have been the central church of the medieval settlement.

Archaeologist Ruth Blankenfeldt, a member of the Rungholt Project, a collective of archaeologists who have been researching the area for years, pointed out that the remains indicate a structure large enough to have been the center of a parish and thus likely Rungholt.

“The find thus joins the ranks of the large churches of North Frisia,” Bente Sven Majchczack, an archaeologist at Kiel University in Germany who also is a member of the Rungholt Project, said in a statement.

Still, the researchers cautioned against taking much of the legend as truth. For one, even calling Rungholt a city is a stretch.

“It’s not a city as you might think with streets and houses. It’s a dwelling mound between dikes in the outlands,” Ulf Ickerodt, another member of the Rungholt Project, told Religion News Service.

Dwelling mounds, or terps, provided living spaces above the height regularly flooded by changing tides. The earthworks, though common in the area, were no minor feat of engineering in their time.