For several centuries in the early part of the Christian era, the Lower Rhine – continuing as Kromme Rijn and Oude Rijn – formed part of the limes of the Imperium Romanum and this situation remained a determining factor in the history of the Netherlands for a long time after the end of the empire. This was evident in the Early Middle Ages, with the rise of Dorestad in this former frontier zone. At the same time, a missionary episcopate charged with converting the Frisians was established at Utrecht, which in the subsequent Middle Ages was to evolve into the town that became the first capital of the Netherlands. Another example is Nijmegen, where while Dorestad flourished became the northernmost residence of the Carolingian rulers. Utrecht and Nijmegen were granted more enduring success than Dorestad but in the Early Middle Ages none would predicted such an outcome. Dorestad made an overwhelming impression on its visitors and even though its name has vanished from today’s map of the Netherlands, its fame has abided.
In the Roman period, the northernmost branch of the Rhine was not only a frontier river but also one of Europe’s main traffic arteries. The Roman frontier defences in this zone consisted of a line of almost twenty castella alternating with smaller watchtowers and a road that interconnected the forts. Establishing such a system in this low-lying delta landscape required numerous labour intensive constructions and although less impressive than Hadrian’s Wall or the limes in Germania Superior, this frontier too formed a monumental ensemble of great symbolic significance (Hessing 1999).
The defences were well maintained until c. AD 250. From then on, decay set in, starting with destruction during the Frankish incursions in the 3rd century, followed by neglect. Some of the castella were reoccupied from time to time, which presumably implies that some repair was carried out. Nothing is known about the state of the forts in the fifth century. By this time, the Roman Empire had retreated from the Rhine delta and the walls and buildings of many former frontier forts are likely to have been in a more or less ruinous condition. What did survive was the Empire’s glorious renown, perpetuated by the remains of these colossal stone structures. Subsequent rulers of these regions were happy to appropriate both.
What also survived was the river’s importance in terms of transport geography. In the political constellation of the Merovingian and Carolingian eras, the Rhine was once more a shipping route of international significance, which linked the regions around the North Sea, the German Rhineland and the middle Meuse region of Belgium and northern France. The importance of the shipping route had only increased since Roman times, as after losing its frontier function the limes road had lost much of its serviceability. In these parts lack of maintenance would soon bring on disintegration. By the Early Middle Ages the Roman road may at best have been of local significance.
In the micro-region that gave rise to Dorestad, the Lower Rhine divided into two streams, the Lek (giving access to the Schelde region in the southwest) and the Kromme Rijn (through the Oude Rijn and Vecht providing a link to the North Sea coast). This transport and economic asset offered the local Early Medieval settlements, including Levefanum/Rijswijk, De Geer and possibly Lote (or Leut), special opportunities. Levefanum was one of the limes castella, De Geer a centuries-old farming settlement and Leut is as yet an archaeologically unknown quantity whose existence at the time of Dorestad is only documented in contemporary written sources.
The aim of this article is twofold. First, we present a summary of the current state of (mainly archaeological) knowledge about the settlements that made up the local roots of Dorestad. The second part presents a comparison of these sites with some other Early Medieval settlements along the Rhine, mainly Roomburg near Leiden, a castellum site like Levefanum/Rijswijk and nearby Koudekerk, which is a good parallel to De Geer (fig. 1). In recent times both have drawn the attention of archaeologists. Pottery plays a large part in these comparisons as in the relevant excavations this has been the most prominent, or indeed the only, category of finds.