(JHE) — Archaeologists working — under rabbinical supervision — in Warsaw’s historic Okopowa street Jewish cemetery have uncovered previously unknown cobblestone paths, buried matzevot (some with gilding an polychrome decoration), and artifacts including glass bottles and coins dating back more than a century.
Okopowa, established in 1806, is the largest Jewish cemetery in Poland. So far, more than 82,000 legible matzevot have been documented, but it is estimated that as many as three times that number of people are buried there.
Focused on “Quarter 1,” the oldest part of the cemetery, the archaeological research took place between June and September and was the first stage of a broader project to be completed at the end of 2021.
“These are the first archaeological works at a Jewish cemetery in Poland carried out in accordance with the provisions on the protection of monuments and with Jewish religious law,” said a detailed report posted on the web site of the Warsaw Jewish community, which owns the vast cemetery.
The work was commissioned by the Foundation for Cultural Heritage, which is overseeing the restoration of the vast cemetery thanks to a government endowment grant.
“During the Second World War, Warsaw was almost completely destroyed. Almost no trace of the Jewish community remains, only a few buildings and this cemetery. And it is, paradoxically, the cemetery at ul. Okopowa says the most about the life of Warsaw Jews at the moment. That is why it is so important to conserve and examine this unique monument in the most professional manner,” Foundation president Michał Laszczkowski said in the Jewish community report.
The lengthy report provides details about the work and how it was carried out. Among other things, it notes evidence of World War II damage — including the discovery of unexploded WW2 ordnance (which resulted in intervention by the city bomb squad).
Here are a few excerpts from the report:
The archaeological work […] consisted of manual removal of the excess soil mixed with organic layers located directly on the historic tombstones, as well as in the space between them. Thanks to the use of the archaeological methodology and the precise removal of several centimeters of humus layers, it was possible to capture many details related to the historical period of land use. Standard archaeological documentation was also made. […]
Extremely interesting elements of the architecture of the Jewish cemetery, which have been uncovered during the archaeological works, are paved communication routes – alleys leading to selected ohels, such as [Ber] Sonnenberg’s or Lipszyc’s ohels, or running along rows of matzevot.
Much of the historic Quarter 1 appears to have been paved, as can be seen from the preserved stones forming paths located singly or in larger clusters. […]
Despite the shallow depth of exploration, the research found a significant amount of movable artefacts proving the history of Headquarters 1. Amazingly large amounts of glass from pottery fragments dating back to the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were found in the central part of the studied space. They were mainly bottles of various types of food and pharmaceutical products, also known from other archaeological sites identified in Warsaw. […] Several coins were also found, incl. Austro-Hungarian, from the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. […]
During the described archaeological works, in addition to exploration, complete photographic and drawing documentation of the exposed tombstones was made. Thanks to this, the inventory of historical tombstones identified in the area covered by the research was made more detailed.
In addition to technical earthworks, a detailed geodetic plan was prepared, including elements of infrastructure – alleys, quarters, etc., and the organizational division (sectors).
An initial inventory of the tombstones was also carried out, which may result in their virtual reconstruction. The end result of the application of the indicated, non-invasive documentation works, supplemented with a series of photos from a height of about 20 m above Quarter 1, is a complete orthophotogrammetric map of the indicated part of the area.