Science - December 4, 2009

New authority on Dutch prehistory

Anyone thinking of documenting the early history of the eastern Netherlands can save themselves the trouble. Archaeologist Roy van Beek has done the job and got his PhD for it this week. A thesis on the patchwork of the eastern Netherlands.

For archeologists, the eastern Netherlands have long been virgin territory, explains Van Beek. An area which has never been systematically and extensively researched. The lack of a university offering archaeology in the area is one of the reasons for this. 'But on the basis of existing sources you can get quite a way towards putting together a detailed picture': this was the conclusion Van Beek quickly reached.
So Van Beek documented his findings for Wageningen UR and the State Service for Cultural Heritage. And how. The result is a hefty tome (641 pages plus a set of maps) entitled Relief in time and space. 'When I started I didn't imagine it would get so big', he says almost apologetically. 'But it is a wide-ranging story, taking the eastern Netherlands from the Stone age about 15,000 years BCE to the Middle ages about 1200 CE. To do this you have to get through a lot of reading and sources.'
 New map
Variation is the key word in Van Beek's conclusions. The eastern Dutch landscape is more varied than has ever been realized. Van Beek sets out that variation is a new physical geography map of the east of the country, dividing it into nine main landscapes. The pattern of inhabitation is also varied. It is still the case that the people of the region divide themselves into 'Tukkers', 'Sallanders' or 'Achterhoekers'. Apparently it was always like this. 'There are marked differences between these areas, for example in the incidence of burial mounds and Celtic Fields. Another striking fact is that the eastern Netherlands has always been at a meeting point for various cultures.' This was the case with the farmers of the Funnel beaker culture. The borders of their habitat cut right through this area.
Theory adjusted
Van Beek has explanations for this heterogeneity. 'I think that it has to do with the divided landscape and the nature of the area. For a long time vast tracts of it consisted of impenetrable marsh. But farmers' preferences for certain types of soil could have played a role too.'
In any case, the textbooks about the earliest inhabitants should be changed, says Van Beek. 'A lot of the theory is based on archaeological sites elsewhere in the Netherlands. And what I see in the eastern part of the country doesn't always match that. The picture is more subtle. You can't lump the eastern part of the country together with a sandy part of Brabant, for example.'