Beneath the soil in Cologne, Germany, lies a bibliophile’s dream: an ancient Roman library that once held up to 20,000 scrolls, according to news reports.
Archaeologists discovered the epic structure in 2017 while they were excavating the grounds of a Protestant church to build a new community center. Considering Cologne is one of Germany’s oldest cities, founded in A.D. 50, it’s no surprise that it still has structures dating back to Roman times.
The niches in the wall were likely “cupboards for the scrolls,” Dirk Schmitz, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne, told The Guardian. “They are very particular to libraries — you can see the same ones in the library at Ephesus [in Turkey].” [Photos: Centuries of History Revealed Beneath Roman Ruins]However, archaeologists didn’t figure out that the structure was a library until they found mysterious holes in the walls, each measuring about 31 inches by 20 inches (80 by 50 centimeters), The Guardian reported.
Based on this connection, researchers were able to identify the niches as all that remained of cupboards built to house an ancient library’s roughly 20,000 scrolls
The Cologne structure was built in the southwest corner of the city’s forum, or marketplace, sometime between 150 and 200 C.E., according to Martin Oehlen of German news outlet Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.
The Romans had founded Cologne, then known as Colonia, on the banks of the Rhine River about a century earlier in 50 C.E.
“[The structure] is at a minimum the earliest library in Germany, and perhaps in the north-west Roman provinces,” Dirk Schmitz, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne, tells Flood.
The city, which served as the capital of the Germania Inferior province and housed some of Rome’s influential imperial governors, soon emerged as a vibrant trade and manufacturing centre.
But he speculates that there could be more Roman libraries discovered in the future. “Perhaps there are a lot of Roman towns that have libraries, but they haven’t been excavated,” he adds.
“If we had just found the foundations, we wouldn’t have known it was a library. It was because it had walls, with the niches, that we could tell.”
Archaeologists discovered the site while conducting construction work on a Protestant church in Cologne’s city centre, Oehlen notes.
The library will be integrated into the new building’s underground garage, with two would-be parking spaces instead displaying the ancient structure’s walls and three parchment niches.