“What did they like?”
Karin Fischer Ausserer takes us back to the time of the Roman legion town.
By Uwe Mauch (Text) and Mario Lang (photo)
Our meeting place today is Michaelerplatz, where we find Karin Fischer Ausserer, the director of the City of Vienna Department of Urban Archaeology, who dives right away into another layer of the city’s history. In the centre of the square are the exposed excavations of Roman houses belonging to the “canabae legionis”, the civilian town serving the legionary camp. “Some of the houses,” she explains, “had underfloor heating and mural paintings.”
She then draws our attention to Herrengasse, leading off from the north-west side of Michaelerplatz. We hear the sound of wagon wheels. Even if they belong to a fiactre on the modern cobblestones, they still remind us of the past, since the old Limes road from Klosterneuburg passed through here and continued along Rennweg to Carnuntum.
“My heart belongs to Roman Vienna,” says our guide in her distinctive accent. The daughter of a South Tyrolean mining family, she was born and went to school in Merano. After leaving school she came to study in Vienna. That was in 1983, shortly before the cinema premiere of the first Indiana Jones film. She didn’t need this extra inspiration, however: “Even at the age of eleven or twelve I was curious to know how it is possible to relate stories and myths that are over 2,000 years old.”
The archaeologist tells us that the Graben in the heart of the city centre today was also outside the Roman legion town and was part of the defensive fortifications outside the city walls – hence, incidentally, the name Graben, which means “ditch”.
She is quick to rectify a misconception that many people hold: “Roman Vienna was founded by legionaries and in its heyday could accommodate 6,000 soldiers. But in the 350 years that the Romans were here, they waged war for a maximum of fifty years altogether.” If only our Latin and Greek teachers had been taught by her! “I’m not interested in wars and emperors. I’m interested in the people. What did they cook? What did they eat? How did they live? What problems did they have? What did they like?”
Karin Fischer Ausserer had to work hard to become what she is today. She would like to have finished her studies in peace, but her husband became ill and she had to work in a drugstore while she was studying. Not that this did her any harm, she points out. After years as a congress organiser, her predecessor invited her to join the municipal archaeology department. Today she is head of the department, which is part of Wien Museum. She is proud that her thirty-two colleagues are no longer out-of-work part-timers but full-time employees who can pursue a career discovering the history of Vienna.
It is a pleasure to follow her around the city. Under the polished stone slabs in the pedestrian zone there are 7,000 years of the history of humanity. “There are not many cities in Europe with such a long history of settlement.”
We are now on a large square called Hof. In the 1960s the first Babenberg castle had to give way here to an underground car park. Its underground foundations were destroyed – a dark chapter in the eyes of the archaeologist. “Not all old things are bad,” she insists. “We need to accept the old in order to create new things.” This message has finally been understood by the building industry. “The situation has changed considerably in the last few years.” Many builders understand that if they destroy these old walls, they are gone forever. They can be preserved, however, by building over and next to them.
Why is there a high bridge over the Tiefer Graben, we ask. The archaeologist explains that this used to be the natural path of the Ottakring stream as made its way to the Danube – at least until the river was regulated.
She concludes by saying: “Our forefathers had the same needs as we do, but they didn’t have as many raw materials or the same technical tools.” They were forced to farm sustainably, long before the modern idea of sustainability was invented. From excavations of Roman refuse dumps, for example, we discover that if the handle broke off a mug, they didn’t throw it away but found another use for it. When glass broke it was remelted.”
Another wonder of Vienna. The architect offers free guided tours for groups of fifteen or more. Registration at 01/4000-81 158.
Uwe Mauch is a journalist with the Austrian daily Kurier, Mario Lang is a Vienna-based photographer. The series Lokalmatadore (Local Heroes) has been appearing in every issue of Vienna’s bi-monthly street paper Augustin since early 2000. Every second Wednesday you can buy the new issues from the Augustin vendor of your choice. The Lokalmatadore book of portraits (in German) is available in the bookstore Bücher am Spitz: www.buecheramspitz.com.