The Medieval Review 11.10.16

Willemsen, Annemarieke and Hanneke Kik. Dorestad in an International Framework: New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, n.v., 2010. Pp. 213. . . 70 EUR. ISBN 978-2-503-53401-5.

Reviewed by:

Richard Hodges
University of Pennsylvania

In a recent book on Dutch history, Dorestad has been named the "Dutch Troy," according to Annemarieke Willemsen in her introduction to this new review of the Netherland's most celebrated archaeological site. But should it really be associated with Troy? After all, Dorestad was a great capital of commerce, and arguably the hub for the North Sea merchants of post-Roman Europe between c. 680 and c. 850, who displaced the Mediterranean as the commercial engine of Europe. Dorestad in some ways was Charlemagne's metaphorical capital, the greatest place in the Carolingian world, bearing comparison with Athens and Rome in antiquity, and its contemporary Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire. Unlike these, though, Dorestad remains something of a mystery outside the community of early medieval archaeologists. Lacking monumental buildings and virtually ignored by its contemporary historians, it is seldom given the status in modern histories of the early Middle Ages that for example Athens and Rome and Constantinople have traditionally garnered. Instead, as this book repeats, its most celebrated hour or hours were its demise when it was sacked by Vikings in the mid 9th century. Historians, in other words, have found its huge riverside wharves stretching three kilometres along the rivers Lek and Rhine curiously underwhelming. As for the immense procurement of timbers for these riverine wharves, or the vast quantities of imported goods, little is seldom said. So, if this volume has a failing, it is to perpetuate the Trojan mythical character of Dorestad which ended in flames wrought by Vikings as opposed to emphasizing what an extraordinary feat of town-planning and urban management were involved in sustaining a metropolis which undoubtedly eclipsed in size (and possibly importance) both Constantinople and Rome in the age of Charlemagne.

Not all historians of the early Middle Ages have treated Dorestad this way. First, as Willemsen relates, the 19th-century excavator of the tiny contemporary town of Birka, Sweden (Hjalmar Stolpe) recognized the significance of the place and objected to its looting in 1880. Stolpe, one of the fathers of European stratigraphic archaeology, complained about "the scandalous destruction of remains that are important to the cultural history of the Netherlands." Half a century later this clarion call was answered by Jan Hendrik Holwerda who undertook the first major excavations between 1919-28, emulating those at Birka by Stolpe. Thanks to him, one suspects, both places were familiar to the Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, who ascribed to them axiomatic importance in the rise of Medieval towns around the North Sea. Second, more surprisingly Willemsen relates, how in 1940, Herbert Jankuhn, the celebrated excavator of Haithabu (with support from Heinrich Himmler), made a tentative bid, as soon as the Netherlands were annexed by the German army, to renew excavations at Dorestad. Jankuhn, an SS officer who was incarcerated after the war, evidently recognized Dorestad as the critical entrepôt connecting the Carolingian heartlands in the Rhineland to the Baltic Sea port of Haithabu which, through the prism of his research, dominated through high-quality commerce the Slavs and Scandinavians. Notwithstanding his connections in Berlin, Jankuhn fell foul of a Dutch law ratified on 24 May 1940 which ruled that only scholars approved by the Dutch authorities could conduct archaeological research in the Netherlands.

Dorestad, despite its familiarity to these three very different titans of early Medieval urban history--Stolpe, Pirenne and Jankuhn--was finally shown to be the great Frisian and Carolingian place that these scholars supposed when the Dutch national archaeological service intervened in 1967 to carry out the largest ever rescue excavations in the Netherlands. Under the brilliant direction of Wim van Es, assisted by Wim Verwers, over eleven years an amazing 35 hectares of this town were excavated. In the annals of 20th-century archaeology, this was truly extraordinary for its vaunting ambition to do justice to the complex topographic and economic importance of this place. In these ten years, with now thirty years of publications, van Es established Dorestad to be even more important a place than Stolpe, Pirenne or Jankuhn had imagined. In size encompassing three kilometres of wharfs and associated settlement ranging in date from the 680s to the 850s, and staggeringly rich in commodities as well as coinage, van Es demonstrated that Dorestad was the motor of North Sea trade. It was an expression first of Frisian entrepreneurship before it was annexed by Pippin the Frank, and then reached its apogee in the age of Charlemagne.

This volume includes many new insights into this great urban history as well as commentaries from the excavations of smaller, contemporary emporia at Haithabu (Germany), Ribe (Denmark), Kaupang (Norway) and Comacchio (Italy). But it is the colossal scale of Dorestad with its rich economic history as well as its place alongside many smaller emporia on the Dutch and Belgian coastlines that commands our interest. First, there is an important reassessment of the riverine topography and in particular the kilometres of wooden wharves or more accurately jetties, constructed over generations, some reaching out as much as 8 metres from the shoreline. It looks as if the settlement was divided by an orthogonal system of c. 4m wide interspaces. The plots themselves apparently possessed a standard breadth and possibly began with a fixed length of between 36-38 m. to 45-47 m. The dwellings occupying each plot were comparatively modest: 5-6 m. wide by 12-15 m. long. Larger farmhouses occupied the rear of the settlement where boat-shaped dwellings measuring 10 m. x 26-28 m., sometimes accompanied by granaries, were discovered by van Es. Set apart and indeed behind this huge urban nucleus, Jan van Doesburg contends that the enclosed earthwork known as De Geer, within which lay a three-aisled boat-shaped building, was in fact a 9th-century high status castrum. This, he argues, was not the homestead of local lords as van Es supposed, but was constructed to confront the threat posed by the Vikings. Without doubt, along with everything else at Dorestad, it dwarfs the contemporary primitive castles known from the region.

Commerce rather than castles or monuments are the real subject of all studies of Dorestad. The history of the harbour area shows an early burst of commercial activity in the later 7th century, then a second greater phase in the late 8th to early 9th centuries when the town minted its distinctive deniers bearing the image of a Frisian ship. This history is now the cornerstone of major new economic histories of the region. What has yet to be accepted is the end of the metropolis. The Vikings, thanks to the serendipitous texts, continue to hold most archaeologists and historians in thrall. Simon Coupland, thankfully, is not bewitched by such rhetoric: musing on the wealth of numismatic data, he contends that the port suffered from the flood of Arab silver into the Baltic Sea in the mid 9th century, leading to the loss of Baltic trade (and the concomitant closure of Ribe in western Jutland). With the menace of silting hindering the maintenance of the harbour, Coupland contends that after 840 Dorestad was in decline, and by 863 when a Viking fleet attacked it, the "once great emporium...had already been dead for several years." The more modest outliers of this great metropolis along the North Sea coastline including Domburg and De Panne, and their impact upon the rise of inland markets in this era would have fascinated Henri Pirenne. Dries Tys's important essay on the settlement development in the Scheldt estuary sheds light on places like Antwerp and Bruges and takes the urban history confidently beyond the issue of emporia to sketch out the beginnings of regional central place markets in a Carolingian heartland. Tys concludes; "These [places] can be described as being involved in or being connected to local markets, which does not mean that these local markets had no access to the wider exchange network. On the contrary, these sites played an important role because the basic and first level of specialized production, but also of consumption, is situated in these sites. The simple fact appears that a broader social spectrum of coastal societies had access to a greater quantity of imports than did contemporaries inland." The emporia like Dorestad with their royal protection formed the top of the long-distance trade hierarchy. "But a lot was happening in addition to the emporia," Tys insists.

But if there is one aspect of this book which defines the extraordinary importance of Dorestad, it is its relationship with production and glass-making in particular. Dorestad, as van Es convincingly demonstrated, was an entrepôt, not a centre of production like many of the other emporia from the North Sea. Yet, recent excavations described here by Juke Dijstra and Gavin Williams show that the opportunity to produce was not entirely eschewed by the citizens of this port. Quite the contrary, glass-working, mostly of tesserae, likely to derive, on the bases of X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, from north Italian Roman sources, were being melted down to make the distinctive reticelli glass (decoration) rods and even vessels that clearly proved a successful staple of the merchants' portfolio of prized goods in the Scandinavian markets.

This is an important book about one of the greatest places in Latin Christendom, one of many small offerings of esteem to the remarkable Wim van Es who grasped the opportunity to excavate this place and did so brilliantly. Much more has yet to be learnt about the early history of the port and in particular of the celebrated role of the Frisians. Given an archaeological record that other great centres in history would yearn for, it is certain that the new project, "Dorestad: vicus famosus," that this book and the accompanying exhibition are heralding, promises to re-cast the Dutch Troy as the unrivalled barometer of the birth of medieval Europe.