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Gerrits - The Excavations at Wijnaldum - Conclusions

Gerrits - The Excavations at Wijnaldum - Conclusions

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Chapter 20 of Besteman et al 1999 "The Excavations at "Wijnaldum - Reports on Frisia in Roman and Medieval Times. Volume 1"
Chapter 20 of Besteman et al 1999 "The Excavations at "Wijnaldum - Reports on Frisia in Roman and Medieval Times. Volume 1"

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The Excavations at Wijnaldum
Reports on Frisia in Roman and Medieval Times, Volume 1
J.C. Besteman, J.M. Bos, D.A. Gerrets, H.A. Heidinga & J. de Koning.
A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam/ Brookfield. 1999
D.A. Gerrets

In his introductory outline of the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma excavation within the wider perspective of current research taking place on political centralization in early medieval Frisia, Heidinga refers to the Helg\u00f6 excavations in central Sweden and the different opinions among archaeologists about the economic basis, the socio-political and ideological context and on the place of the site on the evolutionary ladder (proto-urban or not).1 Reviewing these opinions Kristina Lamm stated: 'So I am convinced that we shall never reach a definite conclusion on the question what Helg\u00f6 really was and we must simply accept, that however rich the material, archaeological evidence cannot give a true picture of life at that time.2

The excavations at Wijnaldum-Tjitsma also gave rise to different opinions among archaeologists about the significance of the site and they will probably do so in the future. But what picture do we get when we fit all the jigsaw pieces together? First we have to conclude that the outer pieces of the puzzle are missing as we have only excavated slightly more than seven percent of the whole terp. Furthermore, many pieces are missing due to site formation processes and erosion, while also part of the material is still under study.3 But as we will see much can already be said about the life of the inhabitants of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma. And certainly, the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma excavations have contributed to a better understanding among the archaeologists involved in the project, of the society of which it formed part. The excavations started as an independent project, but finally appeared to be a starting point for new archaeological research into the Dark Ages of


In these conclusions the present information provided by the contributors will be sum- marized and evaluated, after which an attempt will be made to draw some preliminary conclusions on the nature of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma. What do the facts tell us compared with the expectations we had of the site as expressed in Heidinga's contribution?

1. The landscape

In the beginning was the landscape, in this particular case a relatively recent and very dynamic one. The history of the settlement and the possibilities of its habitants were very much connected with the landscape, so knowledge of its development, which is provided by Peter Vos in his contribution, is indispensable for understanding Wijnaldum.

Vos points out that the salt marshes in Westergo started to expand over the sandy tidal flat deposits from ca 1000 BC onwards. The first colonists moved into the salt marsh about 700 BC in the southernmost part of Westergo where no salt-marsh ridges occur and where

1. Heidinga (this volume)
2. Lamm (1988, p. 98).
3. Especially the large amount of animal bones is now being studied by Kristin Bosma (Groningen Institute of

Archaeology), which will probably reveal more about the character of the site. The final analysis of the me-
dieval pottery can still slightly alter the chronological framework.

a settlement pattern of scattered terps came into being. At this time small local rivers belonging to the Boorne system and draining the hinterland of southern Friesland dis- charged into a funnel-shaped estuarine-like, tidal basin in the centre of present-day Westergo. Gradually this remnant of the former mouth of the Boorne river silted up, due to high energetic circumstances in the North Sea. During storms sandy material was eroded from channels and tidal flat areas further to the north and transported to the salt- marsh hinterland. Because the environment of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma was protected by the former Grienderwaard, this western part of Westergo silted up to a lesser extent and to a lower level than the eastern part. The hinterland will have drained mainly via this western depression.

After 600 BC the first salt-marsh ridges were formed, because sand was deposited along the margins of the salt-marsh and along creeks. These rather small and low salt-marsh ridges are one of the most characteristic morphological features in Westergo. The terps are located on these natural elevations. Each time a new salt-marsh ridge developed, new terp settlements were founded on this ridge. About 300 BC the former Boorne estuary had silted up to such an extent that the first terp settlements were founded in the former mouth of the estuary and during the following centuries a linear settlement pattern developed.

During the 1st century AD the erosion of the Grienderwaard caused increased sedimentation during storms in the western tidal basin and the formation of a sandy cap ridge started along the whole western part of Westergo. At this time a lower marsh had developed in the environment of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma, which was suitable for grazing cattle, but not yet for founding permanent settlements. In the next century, when the cap ridge in the north gradually closed and the salt-marsh had developed into a middle marsh, the ridge of Wijnaldum-Voorrijp and further to the east the ridge of Dongjum-Ried- Berlikum were occupied.

Of particular interest is the changing system of gullies and streams, not only because of the drainage of the region but also because they largely determined communication. Due to filling up of the channels in Westergo after the late-Roman Period, the hinterland south of Westergo started to drain via the Middelzee and Marne systems. With the continuous rise in sea-level rise, tidal action penetrated these systems, possibly enhanced by artificial drainage. At the end of the 9th century the Middelzee system rapidly expanded and in the 10th century reached as far inland as Sneek where it made contact with the Marne system.

The Ried must have been one of the main tidal channels of the western depression in northern Westergo in the early Roman Period. According to Vos the ridge on which the cluster of terps at Wijnaldum is situated should be considered as a levee of this Ried tidal channel and not as a levee along the seaward margin of the salt-marsh. At the time that the terp settlement was founded, Wijnaldum-Tjitsma could probably still be reached by boat. It is not clear whether the Ried was still navigable after AD 250, when a large cap ridge completely blocked off the western depression. Vos does not want to exclude the possibility that the Ried was kept navigable artificially. The main part of Westergo, however, then drained via the Middelzee and the Marne tidal systems.

Let us now turn to the landscape where Wijnaldum was to be founded. It is generally assumed that middle marshes could be exploited as such when people thought the time was right, but this was not the case here. The first human activity at the site starts with the construction of a dike-like structure. The structure cannot be dated precisely because no datable finds were discovered, but it must have been constructed shortly before the oldest occupation phase which started about AD 175. Recent excavations at Dongjum-Heringa revealed a similar dike-like structure protecting small agricultural fields against the sea.4

4. Bazelmans et al. (1998).

Closer inspection of the documented sections at Wijnaldum-Tjitsma showed that the dike- like structure here also served to protect an agricultural field. Contrary to Dongjum, at Wijnaldum several storm layers covering the partly eroded construction phases of the structure show that it was sufficient protection against normal high waters, but that it was not high enough to protect against the few extreme storm surges.

It has often been assumed that the North Sea littoral of the northern Netherlands was abandoned in the Late Roman Period because of the Dunkirk II transgression phase.5 No evidence could be found, however, for the supposed cyclicity of the Dunkirk transgression phases in the research area. The saltmarshes in Westergo show a continuous expansion (regressive trend), whereas other areas show contemporaneous marine inundations (transgressive trend). According to Vos the coastal evolution in the northern Netherlands has to be considered a long-term marine infilling process of the Pleistocene valley systems which was a consequence of the Holocene rise in sea-level.

What did the landscape actually look like, which plants were growing in it and how usable was it for man, in view of the impact of occasional floods? Questions which are answered in contributions of Groenman-van Waateringe and Pals.

After the arrival of the first inhabitants, the site was situated in a brackish marshy environment which was, as shown by diatom research, not flooded frequently any more. The surrounding salt-marsh was well drained by tidal creeks. The high salinity of the soil, however, made it impossible for trees to grow. As Pals has indicated, the natural grassland of the middle marsh was pre-eminently suited for grazing. The presence of plant remains which are characteristic of gradients ranging from high salt-marsh to low salt-marsh and for a brackish and even fresh-water environment show the differentiation of this in many other respects very homogeneous landscape.

2. Settlement development

The biography of the main subject of this book, the settlement (in fact, initially we are probably dealing with two settlements which grew together), as described in the contribution of Gerrets and De Koning, is especially focused on terp building phases, changing settlement patterns and on building traditions. It is, so to speak, the scene of human activities which will be dealt with later on.

In the second half of the 2nd century the settlement started with the construction of one and perhaps two house-terps on the site. Pottery suggests that the founders of the settlement came from within the region, probably from the more southern terp row between Midlum and Herbayum. Surveying on the neighbouring fields suggest that more contemporaneous house-terps were situated at short distance from each other in the unexcavated part of the terp. Apparently, there was still a threat from the sea at this stage of the occupation, as a building was constructed on a 1.25-m-high platform, while a second lower extension of this platform served as an activity area for e.g. copper working. The erection of buildings with a wooden, roof-supporting construction on an elevated platform is characteristic of settlements of the Roman Period in the terp-region.6

After a demographic peak in the 2nd/3rd centuries, most terps in the Westergo region were abandoned during the 2nd half of the 3rd century. According to Taayke, the small number of terps with Eddelak pottery, which is characteristic of the latter part of the 3rd century, are an indication for the demographic decline in the region.7 Wijnaldum-Tjitsma

5. E.g. Boersma (1988, p. 77) and Waterbolk (1979, p.17).
6. Van Es (1968, p. 57).
7. Taayke (pers. comm.).

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