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Pictures: Heikki Räisänen

I barely remember my school gymnasium. Indeed, aside from the fact that it was home to a well-stocked canteen where you could buy a paper bag bulging with chocolate frogs for the princely sum of ten cents, there was nothing especially memorable about the building. I suspect, however, that the current students of Turku’s Cathedral School will not say the same in coming years.

Situated on the banks of the Aura River, the Cathedral School had been desperate for a new gymnasium for some time. Vast cracks had begun to appear in the walls and the floor had also started to sink unevenly. But as renovations began, it was clear that this would not be a simple repair job because there, right beneath the floor, were archaeological remains dating back to the 14th century.

The discovery did not come as a complete shock: Turku was a powerful city in medieval times, and there are similar ruins just down the street at the Ars Nova and Aboa Vetus museum. What did surprise the archaeological team, however, is that the remains appear to be in excellent condition.

Wealthy medieval Turku

The meticulous excavations, which began in October last year, have now uncovered the cellars and lower levels of two medieval houses as well as part of a street. Like much of the city, the area was destroyed during the Great Fire of Turku and covered over in its aftermath. But the careful removal of some 450 cubic meters of different filling layers has made it possible to make out structural elements like stairs, doorways, shelves and even an oven.

A cross-check with the archival records has also revealed some of the houses’ owners. Evert Horn, an influential military leader of the Swedish Empire, was one of the earliest residents. But the area close to the river was also a trading hub, so unsurprisingly the buildings were occupied in later years by rich merchants.

So far, archaeologists have discovered piles of pharmaceutical equipment, ceramic tiles and other material that points to the wealth that existed in this area of Turku at the time. Somewhat more surprisingly, the team has also uncovered an extensive amount of burnt paper. An extremely rare discovery on any archaeological site, these findings will be more closely scrutinized over the coming months.

Over the past month, the archaeological team has generously allowed locals and tourists alike to take a sneak peek at the excavation site as part of a pop-up museum. Sadly, the tours are now fully-booked and it seems that the Cathedral School would like to have its gymnasium back at some stage, so this may be the last Turku sees of the ruins for some time.

At least it will be a more memorable story for the students of the school than one about a paper bag full of chocolate frogs.