Dorestad

revealed
the trading center of Dorestad
an historical outline

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Scandinavian bronze fibula
from Dorestad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tephrite quern-stone
from the Eifel area


Dorestad, one of the most important trading towns of Northwestern Europe in the Viking period, was situated in the central river area of the Frisian coast lands. This place, in the present day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in the central part of The Netherlands, was excavated mainly in the past decades.

A general view on Dorestad
In the beginning of the seventh century the trading town of Dorestad was established on the banks of the rivers Rhine and Lek, probably at the base of the walls of a former Roman fortress. Goods from the Meuse-Rhine area and from the North Sea region were traded here. From the beginning the town was at the mercy of the fighting Franks and Frisians, contesting each other on this place, until the Franks permanently occupied the central river area. The Frankish authorities, and later on especially the Carolingian kings, supported the staple market among others by giving the merchants and artisans special privileges.
Dorestad prospered and soon expanded to the north into a new quarter along the left bank of the River Rhine. The two parts of Dorestad: the Merovingian 'Upper Town' (in Dutch 'Bovenstad') with its fortress and the Carolingian 'Lower Town' (in Dutch: 'Benedenstad') were connected with each other by a road along the Rhine, comparable with the London Strand. This road, the 'backbone' of the town, still can be recognized nowadays in the course of the Hoogstraat, Markt and Volderstraat. The continuation to the south was intersected by the construction of the castle 'Duurstede' in the fifteenth century.

amber pendant from the northern harbour area 'Hoogstraat I'
coarse amber

The 'Lower Town' was organized like a Frisian Einstraßenanlage, including a huge harbour front with many causeways in the river. To the west, on 'The Heul' quarter, a mainly agrarian settlement was situated behind the harbour area. The length of the inhabited area was about 3000 meters, so the town was fairly huge for the period.
Only the Carolingian 'Lower Town' was examined in detail by archaeologists. The harbour area, called 'Noorderwaard' and 'De Heul' quarter could be studied before building activities of the expanding town of Wijk bij Duurstede covered the remains of Dorestad. Along the main road, probably paved with wood, many causeways of earth and wood extended into the river. They were elongated as the river meandered in eastern direction, away from the harbour front. On the land site of the main road fairly narrow parcels with some rows of wooden, rather small buildings, matched with the causeways laying in front of these parcels (1). The southern part of the 'Lower Town', called 'The Engk' was almost completely eroded by a meander of the River Rhine, now moving to the west. Only a rather small area, just outside the settlement, where many graves were discovered, could be investigated.
The 'Upper Town', nowadays situated on the opposite bank of the river Lek, was never excavated. The only evidence for early occupation on this side comes from phosphate research of the soil and from objects that were discovered while dredging for sand for the local industry. Apart from Carolingian objects, most findings, like pieces of tuff, can be related to a former Roman fortress, mentioned as the castrum Duristate in an anonymous historical compilation on the history of the Franks, known as 'the continuator of Fredegarius' (2). Here the Frisians and the Franks gave battle at the end of the seventh century. The fortress was eroded and washed into the river in the Carolingian period. Tuff blocks from the fortress and its buildings were used by the Dorestad population for building activities, and were found scattered around the place.

Administrative center
In the 'Upper Town' we can presume the stronghold of the count, the administrative center of the representative of the king. Most trading activities must have occurred here in the first period of Frankish occupation and Frisian reconquering in the seventh century. In many places, like Mainz, Worms, Cologne and Straatsburg a small strip of land between the water and the city wall (mostly still dating from the Roman period) was used as a trading quarter. Something alike we can expect at the base of the castrum at Dorestad. A part of the 'Upper Town' was granted by the Frankish king to the Church of Utrecht, that started to exploit the banks of the River Lek.

late-Merovingian settlement in the riverbed area


gilded silver fibulae
from 'De Geer'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

glass funnel-beaker from the excavation area 'Veilingterrein'

decorated antler tablet
for tablet weaving


On 'De Heul' a Carolingian settlement with rather an agricultural character was found situated behind the harbour quarter. According to the findings of many domestic products we also can assume here some industrial activities (4). Next to this agricultural quarter the remains of a building were found, on a large grave field among Christian inhumation graves, that was interpreted as a church (5). Possibly we are dealing with the 'Lower Church', the counterpart of the Upkirika, as the 'Upper Church' in the 'Upper Town' was called.
No ditches or walls were found around the 'Lower Town' of Dorestad. Other trading towns also lack such defenses. Later - mostly in the tenth century - defenses were erected like the wall around the trading town of Hedeby (Haithabu). Or the merchants moved their trade within the walls of a nearby situated - mostly Roman - stronghold, like they did in London.

De Geer
Northwest of the agricultural settlement at 'De Geer' a structure of Carolingian ditches was discovered, enclosing a large area. Because of the large dimensions of the ditches the place possibly had a defensive function. Some special objects also point at a curtis, a distinguished dwelling-place or farmstead of a nobleman, situated on the highest point in the environment. In the thirteenth century a fortified farmstead was built on the same place. Habitation on 'De Geer' ended simultaneously with most of that in the 'Lower Town'. Thus a connection between both settlements at close distance from each other can be expected. Did the stronghold at 'De Geer' serve as a refuge for the population of Dorestad, like the Hochburg near Hedeby and the Hammaburg near the trading center of Hamburg? Bishop Rimbert also mentioned in his account on the missionary Anskar a refuge at Birka in Sweden where the inhabitants and merchants sought refuge during an attack (6).

Hinc tua vela leva, fugiens Dorstada relinque.
Non tibi forte niger Hrotberct parat hospita tecta,
Nec amat ecce tuum carmen mercator avarus.

Hoist your sails, flee and leave behind the (towns of) Dorestad.
You do not have the fortune of a hospitable roof offered by Black Hrotberct,
Neither the greedy merchant loves your poem.

In this poem of the English clergyman Alcuin, written at the end of the eighth century, the trading town is spelled as 'Dorstata', consequently in the plural form (7). This also points at the division of Dorestad in an 'Upper Town' and a 'Lower Town'. In the 'Upper Town' we find the 'Upper Church' and downstream in the 'Lower Town' the 'Nederhof', the 'Lower Farmstead', which was situated at the present-day Volderstraat.

one of the 'Hoogstraat' excavations with remains of the harbour

silver denarius
from Dorestad
with a ship
The social political structure
Like other trading places Dorestad became a toy in the political arena. Especially the political developments in the Frankish empire played a determining role in the rise and fall of the place. The importance of the Rhine-Meuse delta increased with the rise of the Eastern Frankish kingdom Austrasia at the beginning of the seventh century. Especially the castrum, controlled by Frisians and ideally situated on the bifurcation of the Rivers Rhine and Lek, must have been the nodal point of the trade between the
silver denarius
of Louis the Pious
found in Wijk bij Duurstede

spindle whorl of antler

Austrasian hinterland and the North Sea area. As more trading towns arose the character of the trade started to change. More and more consumer goods were traded instead of the traditional luxury goods. Also regional trade strongly developed at the cost of long distance trading, which was traditionally controlled by the central authorities. Ship loadings of goods arrived and had to be stored, besides all the ships had to be moored. The ship-crew needed an accommodation, awaiting for a new freight or favourable weather conditions. So it is understandable that in the eighth century the harbour works grew rapidly (9). At last local noblemen got hold of the trade and at the same time the Frankish kings lost control. They reacted by granting large parts of the town to the nearby situated Church of Utrecht. As a result the power was now undesirably divided between the religious center of Utrecht and the secular center of Dorestad. Several Frankish kings confirmed the rights of the Church of Utrecht, necessary against the pressure of the local nobility and the Church of Cologne.
Around 830 the harbour constructions were hardly extended any more. It seems that Louis the Pious was less interested in Dorestad. Despite several Viking raids on the town between 834 and 839 he did not take much measures concerning Dorestad and rather reorganized the coastal defenses in general. With the divisions of the empire in 839 and 843 Dorestad became part of the Middle Kingdom of Lothair I, so in a political sense the connection with the Austrasian lands between the Rivers Meuse and Rhine was sustained. But Lothair and his offshoot were less able to assert their independence between the rising powers of Western and Eastern Francia. The economical decline of Dorestad can be archaeologically observed, in a way reflecting the diminishing power of Lothair and his son (10).

iron adze

handmade Kugeltopfpottery

 

 

 

The text on this page is based on my paper 'Denen in Dorestad. De Deense rol in de ondergang van Dorestad', Jaarboek Oud-Utrecht 2005 (Utrecht 2005), 5-40.

notes
(1) Van Es & Verwers, 1980, 22 ff; Van Es & Verwers, 2009.
(2) Fredegarii continuationes, Krusch, 1888, 172.
(3) OSU no. 48; OSU no. 49; there is a toponym 'De Woerd' (The Holm) east of Rijswijk. For OSU, see: Muller and Bouman, 1920.
(4) Van Es, 1969, 193 ff.
(5) Although this building is situated in the middle of a grave field and remnants of what was interpreted as a bell-fry were discovered, it is not certain that we are dealing with a church (pers. comm. Prof. dr. Van Es).
(6) VA, c. 19, see: Robinson, 1921.
(7) Alcuini poeti, Dümmler, 1881, 220 ; Alcuin also indicated Quentovic in the plural form: vici, vicos (Dümmler, 1881, 66).
(8) charter of Charlemagne from 777 (OSU no. 48).
(9) for the chronology of the harbour constructions see Van Es & Verwers, 1980, 300 ff.
(10) Sarfatij, 1999, 267.
(11) Dekker, 1983, 283.
(12) OSU no. 48.
(13) Rijswijk belonged to the parish of Dorestad.
(14) Dekker, 1983, 100.
(15) Scholz, 1972, 167

the main trade routes in Northwestern Europe
Dorestad is indicated with a star

The upkirika, the upper church
When the Franks finally conquered the castrum of Dorestad and its surroundings, it fell to the royal domain. The Carolingians granted the Church of Utrecht one tenth of the revenues of this domain. Later it appeared that this privilege was changed into all the revenues of a defined trading zone (11).
In this zone we probably can expect the newly built church of the bishop of Utrecht, the 'Lower Church' upon 'De Heul'. During the eighth century the Church of Utrecht expanded its interests considerately as the Frankish rulers granted the bishop the Upkirika, the 'Upper Church' with accessories. This church, dedicated to Saint Martin, probably was founded by the Frankish king shortly after the Franks conquered Dorestad upon the Frisians at the beginning of the eighth century. Also the surrounding territory and the ripaticum, the above mentioned rights on the banks of the River Lek, belonged to the church (12). So the church of Utrecht possessed two different area's of goods: an area that can be recognized as a trading zone and the 'Upper Church' with surroundings.
Somewhere during the ninth century the 'Upper Church' was eroded, like the castrum, and was washed into the Rhine. The church probably was rebuilt a couple of hundred meters to the south as the church, of course also dedicated to Saint Martin. This church was included in the list of goods of the Church of Utrecht from the early tenth century, in the villa of Rijswijk (13).
In 1019 Heribert, archbishop of Cologne, granted the curtis Wijk to the Abbey of Deutz (14). This farmstead with accessories was given to him by Emperor Otto III around 1000. In this curtis we can recognize the Nederhof at the present Volderstraat (15). The Abbey of Deutz also acquired the church and villa in Wijk through the archbishop. Finally the abbey possessed almost all royal goods that did not belong to the Church of Utrecht. Probably the archbishop had successfully claimed old rights from the Church of Cologne dating from the time of the Austrasian mayors of the palace. These goods were concentrated in the area of the late Medieval town of Wijk bij Duurstede.
The Church of Utrecht possessed goods chiefly in the area near the Steenstraat, on 'De Heul' and in the Noorderwaard (the former harbour area), as the fiscal goods were concentrated in the area of the late Medieval town. The curtis of the royal domain was literally the center of this town. These possessions did not change much since the beginning of the Frankish occupation. Even the disappearance of the 'Upper Town' into the river seems not to have changed much. But the double game with the Frankish kings and the Church of Utrecht on one side and the local elite with the Church of Cologne on the other side resulted in a fragmented trading town that was hard to rule.

Viking raids
(see this page for a comprehensive account on the Danish presence in Dorestad)
In the ninth century Dorestad was occupied by Danish rulers, although intermittently, for almost half a century. Their presence was introduced by a series of Viking raids on the trading town, initiated by Lothair I. This Carolingian king, who was in conflict with his father Louis the Pious, had intrigued with the Danish political exile Haraldr 'junior' and incited him to plunder the Frisian coast lands. In the process Dorestad was struck several times. Afterwards Lothair granted the place to this Dane and his brother Hrœrekr to consolidate his military position against the other Carolingian kings.
Hrœrekr was able to protect the emporium (staple market) from most raids, at first with the help of his Danish followers, but gradually also with forces he locally recruited. Unfortunately for Hrœrekr his position in Dorestad was not of much use to him because the trading town was already declining. The importance of the long distance trade had declined ever since regional trade increased. Moreover the growing power of the local elite made it difficult for the Frankish kings to hold control over Dorestad. An attempt to reduce that power by granting property in the Dorestad area to the Church of Utrecht was not very successful. Due to this development the Carolingian kings lost interest in Dorestad. The minting stopped and constructions in the harbour were no longer extended. The economical decline sustained when Dorestad was appointed to the Middle Kingdom of Lothair I. The trading town became less attractive for those merchants that stayed behind. They rather moved to places outside the territory that was ruled by the Danes, like Deventer and Tiel, both rising merchant towns just outside Frisia.
The key position of Hrœrekr at the Treaty of Meerssen in 870 was the cause that his territory - and therefore also Dorestad - was appointed to the kingdom of Charles the Bald. That is why the trading town became politically isolated from the hinterland in the Rhine-Meuse area and was doomed to decline. Hrœrekr now only held the West Frisian coastal area with the declining trading town of Dorestad. The few merchants that stayed behind were persuaded by Louis the German with special privileges to move to Tiel and Deventer.

glass beads from 'De Geer'

 

 

 

 

 

 

references
Dekker, C., Het Kromme Rijngebied in de Middeleeuwen (Zutphen 1983).
Dümmler, E. (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae historica, Poetae Latini aevi Carolini I (Hanover 1881).
Es, W.A. van, 'Excavations at Dorestad; a Pre-preliminary Report: 1967-1968', BROB 19, 1969 (The Hague 1970), 183-207.
Es, W.A. van & Verwers, W.J.H., Excavations at Dorestad 1, The Harbour: Hoogstraat I (Amersfoort 1980).
Es, W.A. van & Verwers, W.J.H., Excavations at Dorestad 3 - Hoogstraat 0, II-IV (Amersfoort 2009).
Krusch, B. (ed.), 'Chronicarum quae dicuntur Fredegarii Scholastici libri IV, Continuationibus', Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum II, (Hanover 1888), 168-193.
Muller Fz., S. & Bouman, A.C. (eds.), Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301 I (Utrecht 1920).
Robinson, C.H., Anskar, The Apostle of the North, 801-865, translated from the Vita Anskarii by Bishop Rimbert his fellow missionary and successor (London 1921).
Sarfatij, H., 'Tiel in Succession to Dorestad', in: H. Sarfatij, W.J.H. Verwers & P.J. Woltering (eds.), In Discussion with the Past, Archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (Amersfoort 1999), 267-278.
Scholz, B.W. (ed.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's Histories (Michigan 1972).

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