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Edge of the world

Let’s go way back in time today. I have already spoken about the Archeon open-air museum in Alphen aan den Rijn. Its aim is to present an overview of Dutch history from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. This is done through reconstructions of ancient or medieval buildings and reenactments of daily life scenes, so it’s actually quite fun, especially for children. Among others, it’s probably the only place in the Netherlands where you can see a decent gladiator fight these days.

The photos are from the Roman part of the museum. The Roman Empire’s frontier passed along the Rhine, right through the middle of the Netherlands, and the free German tribes were just across the water. The region must have been a sort of Wild West of its age. The Rhine frontier was attacked pretty often, and there were frequent small-scale skirmishes with the German tribes. Besides, it was pretty cold by Roman standards, most comfort found further South was absent, and being sent to the Netherlands must have been a bit like relocating to Siberia these days. Some islands of civilization did develop however: the region had several towns, a few rich villas, and in the first two centuries AD it enjoyed a level of prosperity it would not achieve again for 1000 years.

The photos show a reconstructed temple dedicated to Nehalennia, a goddess worshiped in the area of Zeeland. In those times, local gods were either worshiped besides the official Roman deities, or if they were lucky their cult expanded and got adopted all the way to the imperial capital Good examples for this practice are the Egyptian Isis or Jesus himself. Dutch gods did not enjoy such a level of popularity, and had to contend themselves with a local cult, limited to the North Sea coast.

Quite frequently people would choose a “specialized” god to pray to, depending on the nature of their request. Nehalennia was seen as a protective deity for trading, shipping, but also horticulture and fertility. Dozens of inscriptions bearing her name have been discovered, together with temple ruins. Her cult must have been quite popular: apparently people would travel to her temples all the way from Germany or Northern France.

The temple reconstructed at Archeon is quite small, because the region was quite poor at that time. Together with the rest of the “Roman town”, it is however a perfect illustration of the frontier life the locals had 2000 years ago: modest buildings and lifestyles, in a region where people had to fight against a hostile nature and, at that time, also against hostile neighbors. This modesty would become a defining feature of Dutch culture in the centuries to come.

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