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Dorestad. World City in the Middle Ages on View at the National Museum of Antiquities
‘Schoolplaat’ [picture often found on the walls of Dutch schools] by J.H. Isings, 1927. Photo: National Museum of Education of Rotterdam. © Noordhoff Uitgevers publishers, Groningen

LEIDEN.- If you think the Middle Ages were boring and dark, you are wrong. Circa 800 A.D., Dorestad, located where Wijk bij Duurstede now lies (in the Netherlands), was a city that was bustling with activity, merchants and craftsmen. In the lively decor of the new family exhibition ‘Dorestad. World City in the Middle Ages’ (through 1 November 2009), young and old can acquaint themselves with life in this medieval port city. Archaeological discoveries, games and a scavenger hunt guarantee an adventurous journey of discovery for the entire family.

Some 1200 years ago, the village of Dorestad, located on the banks of the Kromme Rijn, grew to become a flourishing hub of trade. Many affluent merchants, shippers and craftsmen lived there. Luxury goods such as gems, swords, glasswork, wine and amber exchanged hands. Dorestad’s heyday was short-lived. The city succumbed after dozens of raids by the Vikings, a long battle against the river and a lack of political protection. At the close of the ninth century Dorestad had disappeared from the map, not to be rediscovered until 1842.

In ‘Dorestad. World City in the Middle Ages’, the dynamism of the trading city is brought back to life in two exhibition halls. The story about city residents and the merchant spirit in the Early Middle Ages is illustrated by hundreds of archaeological objects. A ‘treasure chamber’ with rare church items and jewellery including the ‘fibula of Dorestad’ of gold and gems, gives an impression of the city's affluence. Besides luxury items such as glasswork, gold coins and special documents written by hand, simple implements are also on display, such as tools, supply jars, weapons and a woollen mitten. Projections of figures racings past stylised houses and wharfs and sounds liven up the décor of the port in a summer setting and the city cloaked in winter.

There are all kinds of things for children to experience. They can design a coin, restore a broken vase, do puzzles, play with a Medieval sword and get to work with archaeologists’ tools. For young and old, we have a Viking game by the game inventor 999 Games, a scavenger hunt, family tours, lectures, a contest to ‘Design a new fibula of Dorestad’, activities during school holidays and a Medieval range in the Museum Shop, and more. A special school programme has been developed for the upper classes of primary education and year seven of secondary education.

Recent research is also on display. Based on the latest scientific advances, archaeological illustrators have created new “schoolplaten” [pictures to hang on the walls of Dutch schools], in the spirit of the picture that is well-known to the older generation ‘De Noormannen voor Dorestad’ [‘The Vikings at Dorestad’] by J.H. Isings from 1927. During the international conference ‘Dorestad in an international Framework’ (24 to 27 June 2009), scientists and aficionados will exchange thoughts on the new research data.

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