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Rynek Underground: following the traces of Kraków’s identity

4 min read

The market square has always been one of Kraków’s main highlights, with places to visit such as Mariacki church, the Ratusz (town hall), a variety of restaurants with outdoor seating under umbrellas and of course, the Sukiennice (cloth hall).
However, standing on the cobblestones of historic square, it would be easy to miss the 4,000-square-meter archaeological site (or high-tech multimedia extravaganza) a mere four meters below your feet, known as Rynek Underground.
Opened in a blaze of publicity in September 2010, this hi-tech and highly popular museum takes visitors four metres under the surface of the square to explore the recently excavated medieval merchant stalls, and to experience the city’s entire history, from its first settlers to the death of Pope John Paul II, over the course of some 6,000 metres of multimedia exhibits.

The subterranean excavation of the square began in 2005, after the discovery of various artifacts around Kraków’s famous Cloth Hall led to speculation about what else might be found below street level.
What was discovered was a treasure trove of items and structural remnants that paint a vivid picture of everyday commercial life in the Polish city over the past 700 years, and even beyond.
But the unique, fully-underground excavation uncovered not only the remnants of merchant stalls and various quotidian objects, including weights, coins, clothing, and jewelry, but also preserved stretches of medieval thoroughfares, remnants of a settlement that was destroyed by raiding Tatars in 1241, centuries-old aqueducts, and a cemetery showcasing some of the peculiar burial practices of the 11th century.
It was then decided in 2007 to build and open a museum that would house most of the archarlogical findings, and make them available to the public.

Rynek Underground is the museum that was built to showcase this treasure trove of Kraków history, and mixes the artifacts and restored archaeological sites with lasers, smoke machines, holograms, and 600 three-dimensional models of everyday objects manipulated via 37 touchscreens.
Relying heavily on touch-screens and holograms, highlights include a fascinating look into life before Kraków received its charter and the market square was laid out, displays on trade and transport in the city, an area for kids that includes a performance by automated puppets, and the remains of an 11th-century cemetery replete with ‘vampire prevention burials’ (yes, seriously).
In fact, included in the historical cornucopia are displays depicting burial practices from 1,000 years ago, including the method for burying a suspected vampire.
Long-established in Polish folklore, vampires were believed to only become creatures of the night after death, and possible candidates for future vampirism could be identified via their red hair or rows of extra teeth.
In order to prevent the undead from rising, “vampires” were buried in a fetal position, with hands tied and heads cut off and placed beneath their feet. This would, it was believed, slow them down quite a bit upon reanimation.

Visitors to the museum are first greeted by holographic 14th-century Krakovians projected onto a curtain of smoke, which is parted to reveal an immersive environment representing daily life in medieval Kraków.
Then there are some water pools showing ripples of people walking by, also using projectors.
From there, the exhibits get more real as there are paving slabs from the 14th century, rebuilt houses of blacksmiths and goldsmiths, and then some re-created graves and burial grounds, with skeletons inside. The highlight come next in the centre of the space, where a very realistic scale model of Kraków from the 15th century is shown.
The second part of the museum includes long passages ways with small nooks and crannies with small archaelogical treasures found in most of them, including some skulls which had been found, and are estimated to be from soldiers who had died trying to defend Kraków from the Swedish Flood in the early 17th century. There are many small artefacts such as necklaces, small knives, spears and so on which would have all been used in Kraków’s market through the ages.
If this sounds interesting enough, next time you are in Kraków you should definitely reserve some time to see it!
Do następnego razu…or till next time, if you prefer…

Author’s notes: diven the popularity of the museum and the fact that occupancy is limited to 300 at a time, visitors are advised to buy tickets in advance for a particular entry time. If you like lead…don’t miss the 693-kilogram “lead loaf,” which was a highly valuable metal before people figured out that it’s pretty poisonous!

Images from web – Google Research