Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010)W.A. van Es; W.J.H. Verwers: Early Medieval settlements along the Rhine: precursors and contemporaries of Dorestad
3 Other Early Medieval settlements along the Rhine

3.1 Roomburg / Matilo

Close to present-day Roomburg lay the Roman frontier fort Matilo which guarded the Fossa Corbulonis where it joined the Rhine. Thus the site is a parallel to Rijswijk/Levefanum. Recent excavations have shed light on Matilo. This research focused mainly on the canal banks and on the vicus to the west of the fort.[5] We still know very little about the castellum itself and since what remained of the site after the building of a housing estate has been declared an archaeological monument, there is little prospect of new evidence emerging in the near future[6]. The occupation history of Matilo will on the whole be quite similar to that of other castella along the limes in the Netherlands. This means a transition from timber construction to building in stone and brick and regular use well into the third century.

So far, finds from the fourth and fifth centuries are rare at Roomburg. Only one brooch dates to the fifth century and the fourth is represented by one coin, a few brooches and some pottery. W.A.M. Hessing, the excavator at Roomburg, considers this insufficient evidence to prove continuous habitation at or close to the castellum. He believes the finds to reflect the occasional presence of small numbers of ‘visitors’, but in fact it is rather premature to rule out more intensive activity. The excavations have so far been quite small-scale and the fifth century in particular is notoriously hard to detect in this part of the world. We are dependent on handmade ‘Frankish’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pottery, which is difficult to date and interpret.[7] As regards Matilo, it would be prudent to suspend judgment for the time being.

The same problem occurs with other frontier forts that have yielded fourth- and/or fifth-century finds. The 1986 survey by W.J.H. Willems remains an excellent overview (Willems 1986, 452-456). Evidence of Roman military use in the fourth century at the castella is mostly limited to the stretches of the limes upstream from Utrecht. One of these is the fort Maurik/Mannaricium, situated near Wijk bij Duurstede not far east of Rijswijk. This also supports the likelihood of a Late Roman phase at Levefanum. Downstream from Utrecht, only the mouth of the Rhine seems to have remained fortified at the castella of Valkenburg (province of Zuid-Holland) and presumably also Brittenburg, which was subsequently lost to the sea. The rich river region east of the Utrecht-Rossum line remained more markedly Roman during the fourth century, being more closely linked to the Belgian-German hinterland.

There are only two castella where fifth-century and possibly also Merovingian finds might point to continuous habitation, Utrecht/Traiectum, and Meinerswijk/Castra Herculis near Arnhem. In both cases, the evidence results from comparatively small excavations. Therefore full continuity can be warranted in neither case or, as Willems concludes in the case of Meinerswijk, the finds are ‘evidence for either continued, renewed or intermittent occupation’. But he is hopeful: ‘... future research will undoubtedly produce evidence for several Early and Late Medieval phases’ (Willems 1986, 352-353).[8] Given its position not far from the mouth of the Rhine, there may yet be hope for Matilo in this respect, but any verification will require more digging there. At Nijmegen, which can boast a huge volume of excavations, there is no longer any doubt as to the continuous transition from the local Late Roman fort, via a Frankish and a Merovingian phase to the Carolingian imperial palace (Willems & Van Enckevoort 2009, 95-105).

From the sixth century onwards, habitation at Roomburg is no longer a matter of debate. Its start is impossible to pinpoint closely. A pseudo-coin brooch found close to the castellum dates from the end of the sixth century at the earliest, but habitation is likely to have started before then. The number of Early Medieval pottery finds is quite large, suggesting a settlement of some significance. These were mainly recovered from confined areas on both banks of the Fossa Corbulonis immediately west of the castellum. Clearly the former vicus site was in use during Merovingian and Carolingian days (possibly without interruption). This definitely applies for seventh and early eighth centuries, as new revetments are shown to have been put in along the Fossa between 620 and 625, between 680 and 690, and between 714 and 716. Evidently the settlement was oriented on the waterway. One of the definite attractions of castellum sites was that they offered good access to the Rhine. The old harbour facilities apparently were still quite serviceable after a few repairs.

There is not enough evidence to determine the nature and the extent of the Early Medieval settlement at Roomburg. Neither do we know whether it included the actual fort. Early Medieval reuse of a former castellum site on the limes has been attested at Utrecht and at Valkenburg (province of Zuid-Holland), not coincidentally two of the very few Dutch castella where excavations have taken place.[9] Utrecht became the seat of the Frisian missionary and Valkenburg may have been a manorial centre. This may also have been the case with the Roomburg castellum. The pits at the former vicus site contained evidence of artisanal activity but this does not necessarily mean that the settlement specialised in trade and industry. Artisans were also active at mainly agrarian villae. The harbour precinct on the Rhine and the Fossa Corbulonis would have belonged a larger complex which undoubtedly also included a number of farms and maybe the actual castellum. Its location and facilities made it possible for Early Medieval Roomburg to operate as one of the smaller trading settlements in the Dutch river delta that coexisted with Dorestad. Other examples are Utrecht, where a commercial district evolved beside the ecclesiastical precinct, and Meinerswijk near Arnhem, possibly the vicus where, according to a written source, Frisian traders vainly sought refuge against raiding Norsemen (Lebecq 1983, 2 (corpus), 314 & 336).


Fig. 11 Reconstruction of the Carolingian settlement at Koudekerk (after Van Grinsven & Dijkstra 2006 ).

All of this of course is strongly reminiscent of Rijswijk/Levefanum. Maybe we should also visualize Rijswijk/Levefanum as a complex encompassing a castellum, a revitalised vicus and a number of farmsteads in the background. Hessing (Brandenburgh & Hessing 2005) makes a similar argument for Roomburg. He surmised that in the eighth to tenth centuries Roomburg included ‘several dispersed farms under the supervision of a steward, who was a member of the local elite, and whose home was on the site of the former castellum’. At Levefanum such farms may have occupied the site of today’s Rijswijk (the Risuuic villa). It is hoped that the location of the farms at Roomburg will be revealed in the future. Maybe they were not all that dispersed after all. A clearer picture of an Early Medieval is offered at Koudekerk.

One final note about Roomburg, it is said that original crown land there had been donated to the church at Utrecht only to have been embezzled by the count of Holland during or in the wake of the Viking raids. Rodenburg castle was built here in the thirteenth century and it is reminiscent of the moated dwelling site at De Geer. However, the developments that prompted its construction fall outside the scope of this article.