I’m just back from Leiden where Jaco Zuijderduijn took us (a group of recently-arrived PhD students) to visit the exhibition devoted to the archaeological findings from the medieval emporium of Dorestad held at the National Museum of Antiquities. The curator, Annemarieke Willemsen, was kind enough to introduce us to several of the pieces.
I must confess, the city was unknown to me. However it seems to have been an important port dedicated to the transit of goods from and to Scandinavia and the Rhine area. Like most of the commercial hubs of the time (i.e. the 8th and 9th centuries), it evolved into a significant consumption center of its own while at the same time not hosting any significant production (be it agricultural or industrial) with the exception of the minting of coins.
The city may have counted some 3,000 inhabitants and was dominated/protected by the lords of the neighbouring countryside. Numerous goods were traded in Dorestad: wood, wine, amber, Frankish blades, potteries, millstones, hunting dogs, slaves, etc. The city was finally destroyed by the viking raids in the 840s and by the collapse of the Carolingian empire at the same period which suddenly made impossible the type of long-distance trade the city was based upon.
Dorestad seems to have been the most important trading center of NW Europe at the time and was particularly remarkable by the 150m jetties the inhabitants had to build as the rivers tended to shift westward leaving un-navigable muddy terrains in its wake. Noticeably, the city was also constructed without any distinctive defensive feature indicating that it was highly reliant on peaceful conditions.
The exhibition was truly nice and there is a host of beautiful pieces but I must say I was a bit skeptical about the whole Dorestad being the key emporium in NW Europe theory. Indeed, all the artifacts presented come either from Germany or Scandinavia, but any important city at the time should have been flowed with goods from England, Russia, the Muslim World (in particular Spain), Italy and of course Northern France/Belgium where the emperor spent most of his time. I really do not see how such an important trading center could have arose just by connecting two rather small and peripherical markets (Germany and Scandinavia). But then again I am no specialist.