Archaeologists Discover Remnant of Lost Village Buried Under the Ocean for 600 Years

The main church of Rungholt, a Medieval settlement that has been called the “Atlantis of the North Sea” because it was wiped out in a flood, has been found.
Archaeologists Discover Remnant of Lost Village Buried Under the Ocean for 600 Years
Archeologists investigate Rungholt at low tide. Image: Ruth Blankenfeldt
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Archaeologists have discovered a church buried under the ocean that once served the lost village of Rungholt, which was one of many European settlements that literally disappeared overnight when an intense storm tide struck the North Sea coast in the middle of January 1362.

The disaster, known as the Great Drowning of Men, killed an estimated 25,000 people, sank whole towns, and earned Rungholt the nickname, “the Atlantis of the North Sea.” Now, more than 650 years later, the ruins of the ill-fated village remain hidden under the muddy flats near the German island of Hallig Südfall, which are only accessible at low tide. 


“The fabled site of Rungholt was one of many parishes in North Frisia, which were destroyed in the flood of 1362,” said Bente Majchczack, an archaeologist at the ROOTS Cluster of Excellence at Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, in an email to Motherboard. “It is not the only drowned medieval village in Europe but the extent of the lost cultural landscape, the myths that were later spun around it and the great state of preservation make it unique.” 

“The North Frisian Wadden Sea, and the find spot of Rungholt near Hallig Südfall are a landscape where you can really experience how man lived in a difficult environment and ultimately lost,” he added.

Majchczack and his colleagues in the RUNGHOLT project, an archaeological investigation of the site funded by the German Research Foundation, have been surveying this mysterious site for years. Last month, the researchers made a huge breakthrough with the discovery of a previously unknown string of Medieval mounds that stretches for more than a mile along the tidal flats. 

The structures, which were revealed through geophysical probes and sediment core excavations, include the outline of a church that measured about 40 feet by 130 feet. The sunken building also appears to be similar to other Medieval churches in this area of Frisia that have survived to the present day.

Two smaller churches have also been identified in the area in recent years, but the larger dimensions of the newly found building distinguish it as Rungholt’s main church, according to a statement from the RUNGHOLT project which includes researchers from Kiel University, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, the Center for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology, and the State Archaeology Department Schleswig-Holstein. 


“The search for the church of Rungholt was always a focus and often discussed,” Majchczack said. “A main question was always the character of Rungholt as such—was it a town, even a city or just a regular, but possibly important village in the marshes? Our work now gives extended insight into the structure of the quite large marsh settlement. It of course lacks everything that scholars would need to define it as urban or a town, but we see that it was large, systematic and had a surprisingly large church.”

“We were quite thrilled when the church appeared on the measurements,” he noted. “We had many surprises during the explorations, but the church was the most exciting.”

The discovery of Rungholt’s central church reveals new insights about a community that was wiped off the map by a catastrophic flood that peaked around January 16, 1362. Fueled by an extratropical cyclone, the storm surge swept over a huge area of the North Sea coast that included parts of the British Isles, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. It was one of a series of natural disasters in this era that obliterated communities and reshaped the coastline of the North Sea, which had already been destabilized by human activity.

“Frisian settlers started to occupy the marshes, fenlands and peat bogs of North Frisia from the 11th/12th century onwards,” Majchczack explained. “They colonized this quite uninhabitable landscape by building dikes to protect it from the sea, draining the fens and bogs, digging away the peat to reach the fertile clays for agriculture and pasture.” 


“By doing so, they completely transformed the landscape and lowered the land surface (removal of peat and drainage).” he continued. “This created a huge vulnerability. With increasing marine influence and some exceptional storm surges, the dikes were breached and the land drowned. This happened several times through medieval and modern history in this particular area.”

For centuries after Rungholt was submerged, the legend of the prosperous village haunted Europe and rumors circulated that its residents were punished by God for their sins. The whereabouts of these lost societies remained a mystery until the 1920s, when a local farmer named Andreas Busch began to explore the flats around Hallig Südfall. 

“[Busch] was the first to systematically record these traces, publish them to a wide audience and link it to the myth of Rungholt,” Majchczack said. “In the end, we might never know whether the settlements at Hallig Südfall really are the medieval site of Rungholt or one of the other drowned sites. Nobody has found a street sign yet.”

In recent years, researchers have worked to identify the structures of the village using techniques such as magnetic gradiometry, electromagnetic induction, seismics, and sediment core extraction. In addition to the churches, they have spotted drainage systems, a sea dike, tidal gates, and other remnants of this seaside community. While these efforts have dramatically improved our understanding of these drowned settlements, time is of the essence for the project, as the lost village is rapidly eroding in its muddy tomb.

“We try to get the whole scale of the settlement and how it was embedded in the landscape, how it was connected to the neighboring areas and settlements, how they structured the landscape and so on,” Majchczack said. “There remains a lot to be found! And we strive to really understand which steps and processes were taken to colonize the landscape and what led to the destruction ultimately.”