Home English Reportage: Shaping stories out of clay

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The soil of Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands, is packed with treasures from the past. The archeology service of the municipality is working overtime to map everything. How do excavations contribute to depicting and clarifying the history of Nijmegen?

Nijmegen, which presents itself as the oldest city of the country, might be paradise for Dutch archaeologists. ‘Using the label “oldest city” is a political choice,’ says Joep Hendriks, one of the city archaeologists of the municipality. ‘If you want to keep that label, you also have to invest in it.’ That is exactly what the municipality has done. It does not just do this to better understand the history of the city, but also to make that history more visible. ‘Whoever walks around in the city center nowadays mainly sees post-war buildings that sometimes are already being demolished for new construction,’ says Hendriks. ‘Compared to other historic cities, you definitely do not see the medieval character in Nijmegen’s city center.’

Although the municipality is fully committed to archaeology, many archaeological excavations go unnoticed. This includes the excavation on the corner of the Weurtseweg and Koopvaardijweg, on the industrial grounds in Nijmegen-West. An unsuspecting student might hastily cycle past the vacant lot, without noticing that a team from the municipality of Nijmegen is busy making discoveries here. On a drizzly Monday, about fifteen people are busy combing through the muddy terrain. How do excavations like this work and how do they contribute to depicting and clarifying Nijmegen’s history?

Weighing and throwing away

Hendriks starts off by sketching the course of action during an excavation. He makes his way through the mud towards an elevation of sand from where you have a view of the entire terrain. Once at the top he explains why an excavation is being carried out at this very moment and at this place. ‘We are excavating a plot of approximately eight thousand square meters in preparation for construction of a new building,’ explains Hendriks. ‘To record what is in the ground here for future generations, we are conducting archaeological research. That is  no longer possible after construction.’

Once the excavation has been completed, the story that has been found in the soil will be worked on for a long time. After all, fieldwork is just the tip of the iceberg of an archaeologist’s work, says Hendriks. ‘Once all the findings have been counted and put away, time will start running for us and we will have two years to deliver a report in which we write down exactly what has been found and what it says about the story of Nijmegen.’

Some findings are kept in a depot, but the vast majority are thrown away.

Hendriks climbs down the hill and crosses the excavation to a lower spot on the terrain, where the rest of the workmen are busy with research. The nonchalance with which the archaeologists treat the site is striking. Hendriks makes deep footprints in the recently glorified soil, as if the ground is just as unimportant as the sand of a busy beach. He throws the medieval stones that he has just dated back into the sand with a graceful sweep. Because the ground will soon be disturbed by construction, the workmen do not have to be careful with the tracks after documenting. Some findings are kept in a depot, but the vast majority are thrown away after counting, weighing and describing. Otherwise the depot would become too full. ‘You can make a beautiful rock garden from the stone material that will soon be thrown away,’ Hendriks says jokingly.

Continuous habitation in West

The discoveries that are being made ensure that the image people have of Nijmegen and its history is constantly changing. While Hendriks makes his rounds on the site, he talks about the mismatch between previous suspicions and new findings. Although it was first thought that a Roman plot would be located here, this assumption has since been refuted. Instead, remains have been found dating back to the early Middle Ages, around the time of Charlemagne and afterwards. This is special because no remains from this era have been found in this part of Nijmegen-West before. ‘We found remains from the early and full Middle Ages throughout the plot,’ says Hendriks. ‘That was a big surprise, because we had not expected any habitation in this area at that time.’ Complementing the well-known story of the Roman city, this could perhaps be the first major puzzle piece for a new chapter on the Middle Ages.

This could be the first major puzzle piece for a new chapter on the Middle Ages.

Hendriks then points to small round tracks in the ground. ‘These are pile tracks. There were probably a few farms here from the 10th to 12th century.’ Farms themselves are not a shocking find, but there is something special about this one. The type of farm map found here is well known in Brabant, but not in areas as far north as here. ‘These farms look really different from those in Lent. It is possible that the people who lived here had a very different cultural background from those who lived just across the Waal.’ This indicates that people from other areas and regions have also settled here.

Perhaps there were other non-native people around Nijmegen besides people from Brabant. Deftly avoiding the excavators, Hendriks walks towards a large circular discoloration on the soil’s surface. ‘What we found here looks like a ring rampart, an early medieval fortification. We also know these kinds of ramparts from Denmark.’ He speculates about the meaning of these traces: ‘We know that these regions were ravaged by the Vikings in the Middle Ages. It is therefore possible that they built this rampart, or that it was intended to protect against the Vikings.’ There is no hard evidence, because it seems that the plot was swept clean in the late Middle Ages. As a result, there is hardly any concrete evidence that confirms the suspicion about the settlement of Vikings. Nevertheless, one certainty clearly emerges: ‘The most interesting discovery for Nijmegen is that life in the Waterkwartier has very long continuity.’

Exposing new perspectives 

Hendriks then moves on to the site hut, where the excavation is being coördinated. There he elaborates on the underlying motive of archaeology. ‘It is an established opinion in the Netherlands that what is in the soil is important. After all, the written sources only cover a part of history. ‘A monk would never have written about everyday life on a farm like this.’

By the warmth of the heater in the shack, Hendriks explains that archeology and historiography need each other to reveal history as clearly as possible. ‘Historical sources are not completely objective, because writers create a selective picture of history.’ However, archeology is not completely objective either, says Hendriks: ‘Archaeologists always interpret their findings. Although the method is scientific, interpretations are constantly changing.’ He concludes: ‘Archaeology may never have been more objective than historiography, but it offers a completely different perspective.’

‘Historical sources are not objective, because writers create a selective picture of history.’

So you would think that every archaeologist would be eager to excavate as much as possible to expose those different perspectives. Nothing could be further from the truth, Hendriks  explains: ‘As an archaeologist you want to prevent excavation. We mainly try to preserve archaeological remains in situ.’ This means that the historical objects are, where possible, preserved in the original soil. Hendriks gives two reasons for this method. ‘Firstly, we assume that excavation techniques will improve in the future. So anything we postpone can be better studied later on.’ He continues: ‘Secondly, it is cheaper. By storing residues in the soil, we avoid costs.’ The main reason why digging is being done on this plot is twofold, says Hendriks. ‘The site is also being examined for the presence of ammunition from the Second World War, which disrupts the archaeological layer. Additionally, preserving parts of this layer in the soil is complicated and can even lead to higher costs for the construction plans.’

Disneyland on the Waal

Hendriks mentions one last time in the site hut  the importance of archeology for the city. ‘If residents don’t know what once existed in Nijmegen, I can imagine many of them not realising  what a special place they live in.’He continues: ‘We can make the past of Nijmegen more visible, even without rebuilding the Donjon, which used to tower above the Valkhof stronghold, and making Nijmegen into Disneyland.’ He admits that it is difficult to depict the history for this excavation, because there are few people walking around on the industrial estate. He does, however, give suggestions for the city centre: ‘The city is able to do more things in the centre, the old Roman city. You often only see a discoloration in the sidewalks that indicates that something once stood there. With murals on new buildings and information panels in residential areas, you can bring history to life in a better way.’ Like this, people get the realisation that there is much more history in the area in which they live.

‘Of course, the question is always whether the people of Nijmegen are really interested, or whether people don’t care about history anyway,’ Hendriks relativises. Yet he continues to argue for the great importance of it. ‘Nijmegen, for example, is also an important city because of NEC. Not every resident of Nijmegen shares that, but it is something that should be reflected in the streetscape.’ He concludes: ‘History is not a static entity. It is a story that can be rewritten again and again. I hope we can show that, even when new buildings are built here.’

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