On the night of March 28, 1942, just a few hours before the bells of the medieval cathedral would ring in Palm Sunday, British Royal Air Force bombers closed in on the German city of Lübeck.
It was the first major British air attack on a German city, although the Nazis had razed dozens of British cities in the previous years’ Blitzkrieg campaigns. Three main churches were destroyed by the 400 or so tons of bombs dropped by the planes; 25,000 people were left homeless, and a firestorm destroyed the city’s historic center.
But a cake survived.
It may not look quite as appetizing as it once did, but the 79-year-old dessert is still recognizable as an almond and hazelnut cake – complete with all of its original decorative detail, including swirly icing on top. The scrumptious artifact was discovered in a Lübeck cellar, next to a complete coffee service that had been set out for the family’s Palm Sunday morning. The cake was still wrapped in the wax paper its baker hoped would keep it fresh.
"[The cake] is heavily charred and blackened with soot on the outside," said Lisa Renn, local excavation manager, in a statement about the find. "The heat has shrunk it to just a third of its original height."
The house on Alfstrasse, where the cake was found, was home to the family of a local merchant named Johann Hitze. The kitchen was in the basement, so when the house was destroyed by the bombs, the cake was protected by the layers of debris above it.
What remains is a snapshot of life in the medieval German city 80 years ago, the team behind the excavation said. An elaborately decorated cake and coffee service set out for the morning’s celebrations – perhaps a traditional confirmation ceremony. Whoever set the table had put out the family’s good china, and even the planned musical entertainment was preserved, with several gramophone records including Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and symphony no. 9: symphonie avec chœur en ré mineur being found amongst the artifacts.
Although this is the first entire preserved cake to be found in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, the city is well-known as a treasure trove of archeological discovery. It was founded in 1143, and is now Germany's largest UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its incredibly well-preserved medieval center.
“The subsoil is made of clay, so the preservation for organic material is awesome," explained Dirk Rieger, head of the Department of Archaeology for the Hanseatic City of Lübeck Historic Monuments Protection Authority, to LiveScience. "You dig down like 7 meters (23 feet), and you are in the 1100s. We have every single feature of urban and mercantile activity throughout eight or nine centuries, which is absolutely unique in the way it's been preserved."
"Everything from tiny children's shoes to whole medieval ships" has been found in excavations around the city, Rieger told LiveScience – but the cake seems to have stuck a particularly poignant chord among the local archaeologists.
"It took 79 years for these extraordinary contemporary witnesses … to come to light again," said Doris Mührenberg, who runs the city’s archaeological storerooms. " [They reflect] the exact moment of destruction through their transience and fragile materiality … and nobody knew that they existed at all."
It doesn't quite beat Scott of the Antarctic's 100-year-old fruit cake discovered in 2017, but not many things offer up a slice of real life, to remind us that those experiencing events in history were real people, quite like a humble cake.