You can find the ruins of the medieval Church of St. Nicholas (Czech: Svatý Mikuláš) under Krudum Mountain on an old provincial trail leading from Cheb and Kynšperk nad Ohří further inland through Bečov nad Teplou and Žlutice to Prague. Today, the church ruins are situated in tranquil woods between the villages of Hrušková (German: Birndorf, English: Pear Village) and Třídomí (German: Dreihäuser, English: Three Houses) not far from the town of Sokolov in Slavkovský les (Slavkov Forest), in a countryside seemingly untouched by human civilisation. Appearances are deceptive, though. After exploring the traces in the surrounding terrain, we soon realize that the site was buzzing with life in the past – from the Middle Ages until quite recent times (church, relics of placer and subsurface mining, quarrying, hollow paths of old roads with more recent paving, terraces of old fields, relics of military activity from the time of the Prameny Military Area).
Older records indicate that the Church of St. Nicholas was awarded by King Václav I (also denoted as Wenceslas I of Bohemia) to the Order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star along with the parish Church of St. Wenceslas in Loket in 1253. From later written records, however, we learn almost nothing of the church. Only recent archaeological research confirmed the presumption of the destruction of the church some time around 1500 as it was not listed in the Loket Urbarium, i.e. in the land and property register of the Loket demesne, in 1525. We can still find the somewhat stylized church on the first military maps created between 1764 and 1783, yet subsequent written resources denote it only as a ruin.
Local legends are a very specific historical resource and the church is intertwined with many tales. These are mostly associated with the natural wealth of the surrounding countryside (deposits of rare amethysts and jaspers) as it was perceived in the Baroque period, in which the legends were fabricated. Not long ago, the precise location of the church was still a mystery. A number of indicia pointed to the woody hillock near the junction of ancient trails. Nonetheless, the shape of the stone ruin did not correspond to the anticipated shape of the church. The mystery of the hillock was finally unearthed following massive windbreaks at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s that severely disrupted the site.
From 2002 to 2006, archaeological research was carried out on the site by the Karlovy Vary Museum (Jiří Klsák) in co-operation with the Children and Youth Association in Horní Slavkov (Vladislav Podracký). The first step involved archaeological probes that were to determine the character of the structure, while additional steps were aimed at uncovering the ruins of the church with regard to historical and environmental relationships. The archaeological research yielded essential findings, especially in terms of the structure itself. The church had an elongated oblong main aisle 1480 centimetres long and 1260 centimetres wide, which was adjoined by a right-angled narrow presbytery 1050 centimetres long and 1020 centimetres wide in the east. The presbytery is slightly deflected to the north. The wall thickness ranges from 110 to 115 centimetres and exceptionally to 120 centimetres.
The masonry comprises of quarry stone with the use of Karlovy Vary thermal tuff in mortar jointing. The total height of the church structure was approximately 11 metres, whereas the original masonry may have been almost five metres high. The roof shape and structure are quite hypothetical, nonetheless, we can presume that the church had a gable roof and a lower hipped roof covered the presbytery. The research revealed a large quantity of hip-tiles and we thus have a clear picture of the roofing.
The presence of slate with nail holes is less easy to explain, yet it may have covered the gablet, which apparently rose from the middle of the roof ridge. The position of the gablet is documented by findings in the surroundings of both centrally located entrances. A fire, which either caused the destruction or ultimately sealed the natural gradual dilapidation of the church, caused the bell to melt and the molten bits slipped down the roof slates.
We also have a good idea of the quantity and the shape of the windows, as well as the entry portals. We presume that the presbytery had two windows, one in the eastern wall and one in the southern wall. There were two windows in the northern and southern walls of the main aisle, and one window at each side of the entrance. As some window linings were found in the debris, we know that the windows were high and narrow with a cranked arch on top and cavettos along the sides. The windows had window-panes or panels.
The Early Gothic portal jambs were also divided by cavettos and roll moulding, the portal arch was semicircular or slightly broken. A number of openings for door hinges were found in the door jambs and stone doorsills have been preserved in both entrances. The stone elements were worked with high precision and quality – quite surprising for a location of this nature – which unambiguously indicates the extensive experience of the local builders.
The ceiling of the main aisle may have been joisted – at least judging from the large quantity of iron nails discovered on the site. The ceiling was most likely covered with loam as a large quantity of loam burnt during the devastating fire was found all over the site. The presbytery was arched, perhaps forming a single servery as supported by the discovered fragments of formerets and several consoles.
The main aisle was separated from the presbytery by a triumphal arch. Compared to the main aisle floor, the presbytery floor was slightly elevated and traces of a wooden step were found below the arch. Foundations of an altar table were unearthed in the presbytery and the torsos of the side altars were uncovered in the main aisle. The church floor was covered with lime mortar and paved with square tiles, with each additional row shifted by a half-tile. Only fragments of the original smooth lime rendering have been preserved in the church, however, in two layers at some places. Even though the rendering appeared to be without any decoration, pieces of plaster with ornamental painting have been discovered.
The excavated ruins of the church were conserved after the research had been completed. Some parts of the outer wall had to be re-built, wall copings were sealed, and the original masonry was marked by a line in the church interior. Fragmental rendering was also subject to conservation. The remnants of the altar mesa and of the two side altars were renovated. With a view to the numerous linings and jambs, a decision was made to integrate part of them in the overall structure regardless of their original location.
The archaeological material found in and outside the church was quite voluminous and divergent. The findings included a large volume of medieval ceramics. Surprisingly, the tiles were also found among ordinary kitchen earthenware. In addition, the research yielded several hundred metal items that were largely made of iron, as well as more luxurious items made from other metals. The numerous finds also included glass and bone objects.
Special attention was also given to dozens of coins discovered on the site. A further chapter was the finds of human skeletal remains buried in the church. These were either clerics or members of the contemporary nobility. The archaeological research of the Church of St. Nicholas and its surroundings provided answers to a number of questions. Nevertheless, it did leave one question unanswered – why was the church built particularly on this site, as a result of what chain of events and under what circumstances?
We can only guess that the provincial trail may have played a certain role in its foundation (as suggested by the dedication to Saint Nicholas, the patron of merchants). Furthermore, it may have been the short-term, yet intensive mining activity, the relics of which are still apparent in the landscape, without any traces of human settlement, though. Perhaps, traces were erased by renewed mining activities in the Baroque age. With our current knowledge, unfortunately we cannot provide a clear answer.