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Disasters & destruction

German floods damage archives, soaking historic documents in mud

A team from the Cologne City Archive has sent emergency aid to Stolberg

Stolberg's city archive has been flooded © Marius Becker/dpa/Alamy Live News

A team from the Cologne Historic Archive has sent emergency support to the flood-swept town of Stolberg, where volunteers are trying to rescue documents and museum objects soaked in muddy water.

Flash floods caused by heavy rains and burst rivers in western Germany last week claimed at least 160 lives and have caused untold damage to property. A spokesman for the German Cultural Heritage Protection Foundation said it was too early to give an overview of the impact of the floods on heritage, although he said several sites have been affected. The foundation has issued an appeal for donations.

In Stolberg, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, the city archive located in the historic town hall and two external depots were submerged in water, threatening documents dating back to the 18th century, maps, photos but also objects from the town’s museum collection, said Nadine Thiel, the head of conservation at the Cologne Historic Archive. The Cologne archive sent a rescue container it has developed in cooperation with the fire service to provide emergency aid in such situations, complete with facilities for washing and freezing muddy documents.

“It’s like a first-aid rescue vehicle for injured archive material,” says Thiel, who travelled to Stolberg to help with the salvage work. “We rinse off the mud and freeze the documents to prevent disintegration and maintain the status quo -- otherwise the mud dries, and you can’t get it off. This buys time to think about the best way to proceed with conserving the material.”

Thiel has experience in rescuing muddy documents. Twelve years ago the building that housed the Cologne Historic Archive collapsed, killing two people. Thousands of documents were buried under dust and rubble. Thiel, who led that restoration effort, said some documents were submerged in the ground water and had to be rescued using the same methods as those applied in Stolberg.

The Cologne Historic Archive is in contact with other towns in the flood-hit region that may need the facilities it has developed for such situations, Thiel says.

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 Dusseldorf, has also suffered flood damage. The castle has in recent years undergone extensive renovations, including the reconstruction of two towers.