German floods damage archives, soaking historical documents in mud


Stolberg city archives flooded
© Marius Becker / dpa / Alamy Live News

A team from the Cologne Historical Archives has sent emergency aid to the flood-swept town of Stolberg, where volunteers are trying to rescue documents and museum items soaked in muddy water.

Flash floods caused by heavy rains and river flooding in western Germany last week killed at least 160 people and caused untold property damage. A spokesperson for the German Foundation for the Protection of Cultural Heritage said it was too early to give an overview of the impact of flooding on heritage, although he said several sites had been affected. The foundation launched an appeal for donations.

In Stolberg, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, the city archives located in the historic town hall and two external depots were submerged in water, threatening documents dating from the 18th century, maps, photos but also objects from the collection of the city museum, said Nadine Thiel, head of conservation at the Historical Archives in Cologne. The Cologne Archives sent a relief container which they developed in cooperation with the fire brigade to provide emergency assistance in such situations, with facilities to wash and freeze muddy documents.

“It’s like a rescue vehicle for injured archival documents,” says Thiel, who traveled to Stolberg to help with the salvage work. “We rinse the mud and freeze the documents to prevent disintegration and maintain the status quo – otherwise the mud dries up and you can’t remove it. This saves time in thinking about the best way to proceed with the conservation of the material. ”

Thiel has experience rescuing muddy documents. Twelve years ago, the building that housed Cologne’s historical archives collapsed, killing two people. Thousands of documents were buried under the dust and rubble. Thiel, who led this restoration effort, said some documents had been submerged in groundwater and needed to be saved using the same methods applied at Stolberg.

The Cologne Historical Archives are in contact with other cities in the flood-affected region that may need the facilities they have developed for such situations, Thiel said.

Other affected heritage in the region includes Burg Blessem, a castle in Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne. The castle partially collapsed in a mudslide, according to Der Spiegel online. The Baroque castle and grounds of Schloss Neuenhof in Lüdenscheid, east of Düsseldorf, also suffered flood damage. The castle has undergone major renovations in recent years, including the reconstruction of two towers.

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