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Letter from Rotterdam

The City and the Sea

How a small Dutch village became Europe's greatest port

September/October 2016

Letter From Rotterdam Markthal


The skyscrapers of Rotterdam rise high above the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, a channel of the Rhine Delta, whose rivers snake their way across most of the southern Netherlands. Lying some 20 miles upstream from the North Sea, the city’s port is a vital trading center that connects the industrial heartland of Europe with the rest of the world. In this forward-looking, modern metropolis, the country’s second largest, almost no two buildings look alike, and its futuristic appearance is a stark contrast to more traditional Dutch cities, such as Amsterdam or Delft. Rotterdam’s Centraal train station, for example, is all angles and sharp lines with a tip that points new arrivals in the direction of the city center. The public library is covered in creeping yellow tubes, while the nearby flying saucer of the Blaak metro station seems poised for takeoff. The city’s newest architectural marvel is the Markthal, a massive covered market hall in the shape of an upended horseshoe that stands near the fifteenth-century St. Lawrence Church. Extensive excavations here have revealed that the hypermodern Markthal lies above what was once the very heart of medieval Rotterdam. “The St. Lawrence Church is the only medieval remnant you can see,” says Arnold Carmiggelt, chief of Rotterdam’s archaeological bureau. “The only other medieval structures are underground.”


The reason so little of medieval Rotterdam survives is that on May 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe carried out a devastating raid on the city. That attack and the ensuing fire left only a handful of buildings still standing. The redevelopment of Rotterdam and its port after World War II took decades, and while its citizens built for the future, they found themselves constantly encountering their city’s history. “As people were cleaning up, and later when rebuilding, they would find items from the past—tiles, earthenware, medieval and postmedieval artifacts, as well as locks and sluices,” says Carmiggelt. “Because everything had been lost, they were very interested in these objects from the past.” The city’s archaeological bureau, the Netherlands’ first such municipal agency, was founded in 1960 primarily because there were so many accidental historical discoveries.


When construction on the Markthal began in 2009, the bureau was faced with both its biggest opportunity and its toughest challenge. Officials knew the structure’s planned four-level underground garage would destroy any archaeological remains that lay in its way. Excavating ahead of the structure meant digging to a depth of 40 feet, well below sea level. “Constantly seeping groundwater would make archaeological work impossible,” Carmiggelt says, “so we worked with geotechnicans to make a system to keep water out of the excavation.” Working on a tight deadline through winters, in harsh conditions, the team made a series of discoveries that peeled back the history of Rotterdam to the time of the city’s founding and even earlier. The waterlogged earth that made excavation difficult meant that the wooden structures and many artifacts found in garbage layers and cesspits, never exposed to oxygen, were extremely well preserved. They provided remarkably clear evidence of how the earliest generations of Rotterdammers struggled to coexist with the same sea that would eventually enable a small, wet settlement of a handful of farmers to grow into a bustling medieval center, and eventually into one of the world’s most consequential cities, with the largest port in Europe.


Some of the earliest known inhabitants of what became Rotterdam lived during the Roman period, when the southern Netherlands were part of the frontier province of Germania Inferior. They made their homes on marshy peatland near a fort that stood alongside the riverbank of the Old Rhine, the northern border of the Roman Empire. In addition to Roman-era ceramics found at the very bottom of the Markthal excavations, city archaeologists also discovered wooden locks, trenches, and ditches that were all used in attempts to control water levels even then. After the Romans withdrew from the area in the second half of the third century A.D., the population steeply declined, in part because rising sea levels eventually made the region uninhabitable.




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