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Dig This: Building Boom Exposes E. Germans' Pre-Communist Past

Of all the unintended consequences of German reunification, perhaps one of the more surprising is a minor archaeological boom.

Investors seeking opportunities in former East German states have moved in to build shopping centers and parking garages. But they are being held to new state laws that require archaeologically significant sites to be properly excavated - at investors' expense.

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The hole in the ground in the town center here in Neubrandenburg, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is a good example. ECE Project Management, a Hamburg firm that plans, builds, and manages shopping centers, is putting up a shopping center with an underground garage where the 13th-century town market once was.

And so, "before this can be a building site, it has to be an archaeological site," says Susanne Hayder, an archaeologist on the scene. "He who wants to build must first pay to dig."Our goal," she says of her work, "will be to produce a history of the community over the centuries." The project started in May and should be done in October.

Across the site, red strings mark off sections of particular interest - a medieval well and two complete horse skeletons, for instance. Naturally, the deeper Ms. Hayder's crews dig, the further back in time they go. The oldest sections go back to the 13th century, and the "new" sections go back to the 16th century.

Seated in her trailer-like office on the edge of the site, Hayder shows the carefully detailed site drawings that are being made - of the well, for instance, with each brick and stone outlined. "We can't preserve the site, but we can document."

Neubrandenburg, noted for the elaborate brick portals that give it its nickname as "the city of the four gates," is typical of eastern Germany in being a mixture of old architecture along with socialist concrete blocks and wide-open spaces that nowadays suggest emptiness rather than spacious grandeur. Many of the town centers were leveled by bombing during World War II. In the west, many of these centers were restored in their original architectural styles. But in the east, "the Russians destroyed everything, and they just left things empty," Hayder says.

The Neubrandenburg site was a parking lot until the archaeological excavations started.

Martin Langen, of ECE's Berlin office and project manager for the Neubrandenburg site, is philosophical about the extra expense involved. "It's the law, and you have to go along," he says. The state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania already started excavating the site as a job-creation program, however, and so ECE is getting a break on the costs.

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Elke Schanz, Hayder's supervisor at the state office for historic preservation in nearby Waren, says the laws requiring builders to pay excavation costs vary from state to state but generally go back to around 1993. Sometimes an archaeological "surprise" turns up - early phases of construction reveal artifacts where none were expected to be found - and in these cases the state pays for the archaeologists. The licensing authorities are responsible for knowing what areas are archaeologically sensitive, and when an evaluation has to be made. "We try to do this as quickly as possible, because time is money," Ms. Schanz says, reflecting an appreciation for the exigencies of capitalism that would have been unimaginable in eastern Germany before the Wende, or change.

Western Germany, too, has laws requiring excavation of archaeological sites discovered during construction, though excavation proceeds at public rather than private expense.

Just this spring, preliminary digging for an expansion of a state court house in Bonn turned up signs of a Roman pottery kiln, which now is being excavated before construction can proceed.

West or east, archaeologists have to "work at a mad scramble," says Marie Heer, spokeswoman for the Rhineland Landscape Federation in Cologne, which directs the Bonn excavation. "When the construction cranes are standing waiting, compromises have to be made, and they're often made at the expense of the archaeologists."

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