Last updated: 31 January 2018.
Dorestad, or Dorostate, Dorestadum, is an early medieval trading town that falls into decline by the ninth century. Its location is believed to be near Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands. The site is discovered in the nineteenth century already. The first full excavation takes place in the 1960s.1
Dorestad experiences its heyday in the early Viking Age. A little context of the region’s history is necessary to understand the town’s success and eventual decline. A settlement is established at the fork of two large rivers: the Rhine and the Lek. In Roman times, these rivers formed the limes or borders of the Roman empire. Because of its strategic location, the Romans built a castellum here.2 But the Roman Empire falls and the Frisians gradually take control of the region.
The rivers continue to be a border, but now between the Frisians and the Franks. The Frisians are very active traders. They travel and settle in trading towns across northern Europe.3 Via Dorestad, they can connect easily with other trading routes. Either to Scandinavia and the Baltic, or to the British Isles and the western European coastline, or via Germany and Belgium to central Europe. Dorestad prospers and grows. From a seasonal marketplace, it turns into an important trading centre.4 It is an emporium, a staple place for trading goods such as wine and glass. Another sign of its importance is Dorestad’s own mint.5
The excavations show that the town’s expansion follows the course of the river banks. Along the Rhine is the lower town with its harbour. The causeways form a complicated pattern stretching along the river. Beyond the harbour are the houses and behind these are the farmlands. Near the Lek, the upper town with its administrative centre lies close to the old castellum.6 Meanwhile, the Frisians try to push their boundaries further south into Frankish territories. The Frankish kings push back just as hard. They are interested in Dorestad’s wealth. By the 730s Charles Martel defeats the Frisians and takes control of Dorestad.7
Viking Age Relevance
The first Viking raids hit Europe by the end of the eighth century. On the continent, the most important ruler is Charlemagne, Charles Martel’s grandson. He is the king of the Franks, but also the Holy Roman Emperor. His response to the attacks is a coastal defence that includes a fleet, shore-based guards and as a last resort, a land-based army.8 When Charlemagne dies in 814, his son Louis ‘the Pious’ succeeds him. Louis seeks to expand his realm to the east towards Byzantium and the Middle East. He leaves the politics and economy of Europe to the local rulers. In the case of Dorestad, this is the Bishop of Utrecht. Later on, he appoints his son Lothair as the ruler to oversee these local rule in these regions.9
Rivers, Raids and Politics
By the early ninth century, Dorestad’s economy is in decline. Archaeological evidence suggests that the 830s are a crucial time period. In this decade, no new causeways are built in the harbour. Perhaps, this is caused by the rivers gradually shifting their course. This causes prolonged flooding in the harbour. And after the water recedes, silt and sand remain behind making the area around the causeways too shallow for cargo boats or trade ships.10
It might also be the result of the slowing economy and political unrest. The first cracks in the Carolingian empire start to show. The Vikings make good use of this by frequently raiding the coast and region. Louis the Pious is not interested in ensuring Dorestad’s unique trading position. He divides his empire among his sons who rebel against him. Lothair, ruler of Dorestad, instigates further Viking raids by striking a deal with the Dane Harald the Younger. This seems an act of spite toward his father. But after Louis dies, Lothair appoints Harald and his kinsman Rorik ‘of Dorestad’ as military leaders in Frisia and Dorestad. Ironically, to keep other Norsemen away.
The Viking rule does not improve the safety of the town or region. There is no further evidence of new causeways or defence structures. Worse, Harald and Rorik are caught in a struggle with the powerful Bishop of Utrecht and their Carolingian overlords. After Dorestad suffers a large Viking attack in 863 it is rebuilt but never returns to its former glory. Meanwhile, the Carolingian empire unravels. Rorik reigns alone when Harald is gone. Yet, he too disappears from the books after 882. Later on, the Danish leader Godfrid the Younger is appointed by Lothair’s uncle Charles ‘the Fat’. His reign is short until he is murdered by a local count, Gerolf. This same Gerolf takes the title Duke of Frisia and will be the ancestor of the counts of Holland.11 This is to no avail of Dorestad. It is reduced to a small farming and fishing village.
The actual site of Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede is a topic of discussion. Most scholars agree that this is the correct place. However, in the twentieth century, the Dutch archivist Delahaye claims this location is wrong for various reasons. His viewpoint is still pursued on the Internet.12
The debate seems to be one interpretation battling against the other and has polarised to a certain extent. The lack of confirmation from medieval primary sources does not help, either. It has not stopped the Dutch Museum of Antiquities to organise three conferences on Dorestad. This encourages further international research and analysis of the site.13 The proceedings of the conference show they are taking the excavations and its analyses to another level.14
Whatever the outcome of the debate, near Wijk bij Duurstede lies without a shadow of a doubt an interesting, early medieval trading centre.
Artefacts from Dorestad
Dutch Museum of Antiquities – Fibula from Dorestad
Dutch Museum of Antiquities – Dorestad Artefacts
Further Reading & Watching
Cultural Heritage Agency for the Netherlands – Excavation Dorestad (full report in English)
Dutch Museum of Antiquities – Animation of Dorestad (video)
Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research – Dorestad in Detail (video)
RTV Utrecht (Local TV station) – Dorestad(video)
- A. MacKay, Atlas of Medieval Europe. (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 57. ↩
- Romeinse Limes, ‘Wijk bij Duurstede,’ Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Dagfinn Skre, ‘From Dorestad to Kaupang: Frankish Traders and Settlers in a 9th–century Scandinavian Town.’ In: Dorestad in an International Framework, edited by Annemarieke Willemsen and H. Kik (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 133. ↩
- Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Dorestad: Noormannen 1,’ Dorestad Onthuld. Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 121–122. ↩
- The NAVIS II Project, ‘The Early–Medieval harbour of Dorestad.’ Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Franken en Friezen,’ Dorestad Onthuld. Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Simon Coupland, ‘The Carolingian Army and the Struggle against the Vikings.’ In: Viator, Volume 35 (2004), pp. 49 [pp. 49–70]. ↩
- Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Dorestad | English Version,’ Dorestad Onthuld. Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Overzicht noordelijke havengebied,’ Dorestad Onthuld. Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Luit van der Tuuk, ‘Deense Warlords | Gudrödr (Godfried de Jongere),’ Gjallar. Last Accessed 08 January 2016. ↩
- Historiek.net, ‘Dorestad – Een eeuwenoud handelscentrum.’ Published July 27, 2009. ↩
- Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, ‘Second Dorestad Congress 2014.’ Last Accessed 08 January 2016.
Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, ‘Third Dorestad Congress 2019.’ Last Accessed 28 July 2019. ↩
- Søren Sindbæk, ‘Book Review: First Dorestad Congress,’ In: Medieval Archaeology, Volume 55 (2011), pp. 355–356. ↩