It was just a chance find. When digging a
future pond for Veldhuizen, a large new
The development of houses for 30.000 people west of Utrecht was of course a big chance for the archaeologists, who hoped for several finds. The Roman fort of De Meern was long since known, but the discovery of a big Roman thoroughfare kept everyone on their toes. And much was found: more traces of that road, a bridge, a quay and finally a watchtower, which was a novelty.
Then, in 1997, a chance find occurred, which led to the discovery of the ship. Two stories circulate of that find. In one, a digger hits wood in what was already a search for the Roman road. In the other, archaeologist Hans Joosten overheard a fellow traveller on the train when he tells of mysterious wood found in a building pit. In both cases, the archaeologist were alerted and hurried to the scene.
Thinking of more quays, these were very surprised when the find turned out to be a ship! And not just a ship, but a real wreck in mint condition at that. When the 6 Zwammerdam ships were found in the 20th century, these turned out to have been deliberately sunk to strengthen the shore. This one, however, was still intact - a toolbox with contents came out of the mud! It must have sunk by accident rather than by design. The decision was made, nonetheless, to cover it up agian. Why? Well, to raise funds so an excavation could be carried out properly. However, by the year 2000 it turned out that the ancient riverbed still carried water, and water with too much oxygen at that. As a result, the ship would start to rot eventually, meaning that the excavation would have to get started a lot sooner. March this year, the dig got underway and a big pit was dug to reveal the ship. By June 12th it will be raised and transported to Lelystad, where a bath of ethyleneglycol will conserve it for future generations.
This is about the 15th Roman ship found in
The Netherlands, and the best one yet. The 6 ships of
Zwammerdam (3 kanoos and 3 big freighters) all had been
dismantled by the Romans, but this one was still intact.
More intact, even, than the ships recently found in Pisa,
or the 5 transports found in Mainz. A truly unique find.
finds, as displyed above, included the already mentioned
toolbox, a spearhead, a key, scissors, a handmill, a military shoe
(sole), a coin, a stylus, a fibula, a chisel, a paddle,
an axe, a knife and two sticks for unknown use. As I
write this (2003/06/04), a ship's hook has just been
The ship was
tentatively dated to around 180 AD. This proved to be a
good guess, for comfirmation arrived just before the ship
was lifted out of the mud, on its way to the final stage
of conservation. It was already known that the ship sank
right next to the Roman road, which was known to have
been constructed in 125 AD. The terminus was the year 225
AD, around which this region of the Rhine was no longer
navigable. A bronze coin proved too worn to recognise the
Emperor, and a bronze fibula and the form of the ship
added no possible dates either.
time after the sensation of the ship, the foundations of
a watchtower were found close by at Vleuterweide. This
was something of a sensation, too, because such
watchtowers had not been expected on the Lower Rhine. It
now seems that the line of the river was much heavier
guarded than thus far assumed, with watchtowers at
regular intervals within sight of each other (about 1.5
km). Signal fires or smoke could alert the guardians of
the next tower, so that an alarm could be passed down the
line to the nearest fort within a relatively short time.
This tower was the first found in the west of The Netherlands whit a clear military frontier use. A Late Roman tower had been found earlier, south of Nijmegen at Heumen (above, middle). The tower of Vleuterweide (above, right) differs from the former in that it had a lesser wall (in fact almost a fence), surrounding it. They both had a ditch as an outside perimeter, but this one was full of water and defended by pointed stakes. Other towers, unfortunately far less preserved, had been interpreted differently, but this may soon be rectified! On at least 3 locations in the area west of Utrecht we can now be sure that watchtowers existed over a period of time.
The Vleuterweide tower measured 3 by 3 metres, and was probably 5 metres high. It had two floors, one used by the soldiers on guard, and the other as living quarters. The tower is also unique because the wooden beams of the last building phase are still standing about a metre upright. Also, there's so much debris and remains of the earlier phases still in good condition, that reconstruction will be much easier. It has not yet been dated, but large planks, used to prevent the soil from being washed away by the river, will greatly fascilitate such dating. However, it is already known that the earliest phase may date to as early as 40 AD (which makes it one of the earliest Roman towers ever found!), and the latest phase may date to around 160 AD, when all the remains were covered by the road. Other towers existed up to 260 AD.
We heard of the possibility to visit the ship and the 'tower' just a few days earlier. This was indeed an opportunity not to be missed! Especially my daughter Marrit, who was 6, already showed some interest in Roman things, and for me it was of course something I just had to see. The weather played along, overcast but dry, inviting the masses to come and take a look. And the masses came. During the 4 days the site was open, no less than 28.000 visited the ship and the tower. It's always interesting and encouraging to see that so many take an interest in their heritage, especially in this day and age of shallowness. However, if they all want my parking spot it's quite another matter. The giant tent erected over the pit was crammed to capacity (and beyond at times). The atmosphere, already very moist because of the need to conserve the ship in the pit below, was even more devoid of clear air because of the churning mass of enthousiastic people, pushing and shoving to get a better look. I had my youngest (Jeroen, 2) on my shoulders, but the rest of us had to wait until somebody left, to push our way through to the edge of the pit.
There, several metres below us in the yellow mud, there she was. A beauty. Of course, the wood was dark, rotting no doubt in places, fresh out of the ground and still in the same mess she was in when she went down. How long ago? They're still debating that, but somewhere around 180 AD it must have been. Until 1997, when a digger ran into her hull and she was yanked into the daylight agin. And now the remote descendants of her crew, or possibly of her enemies, had come in their thousands to get a good look. It seemed they couldn't get enough.
Well, the archaeological information was very well presented, with guided tours and free leaflets all over the place. And of course, there was Legio X Gemina. The Roman re-enactors from Nijmegen, the Gemina Project, had a small contingent which at times dared to push through the masses in the tent. Well, dared is a strong word, for their Optio had no problem bellowing his way forward, easily parting the masses as they went. The kids were a little taken aback, but not much, as they're used to me dressing up and 'becoming' a Roman. But up close, in a heavy crowd, the guys were very impressive anyway. Time to seek better air and leave the dusty moist tent.
Outside, it started to rain slightly. We moved along a well-prepared path to the remains of the watchtower. Of course, the ship being the best Roman ship they ever found, the watchtower was bound to get much less attention. A very big pit with a big bank of earth behind it was all there was to see, only the contours being visible of what must have been a watchtower on the south bank of the Lower Rhine. Only by climbing the bank did I get a bit of an idea.
On our way back, Legio X Gemina was doing one of their displays, so we crawled through a forest of legs to the front of the crowd (sometimes it's nice to have very young kids with you) and we had a good (albeit very low) view of the action. A little too close for Jeroen, and the towering legionaries were a bit too scary for Marrit as well, but she stayed put. I had to dodge a scutum from time to time, but it was a nice way to close off the visit with.
Finally, we trodded back to the car. Nice afternoon, very well spent.
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