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Velzeke

Between the Carolingian and Ottonian periods, Velzeke was an important regional power centre and shared its history with the neighbouring Ename. The contemporary visitors can appreciate Velzeke Museum with new interactive ways for presenting the archaeological finds as well as Ottonian parts of the St. Martin Church.

  • AD 850 – 1050

AD 850 – 1050

History

In the late Carolingian and early Ottonian period Velzeke culminated in a new administrative and civil center at the place of the actual village. However, the written sources of this period are very rare. Its history has also to be reconstructed from archaeological evidence and retrospective interpretation of later sources. There was an oral tradition amongst the population of Velzeke recorded by Marcus van Vaernewyck in the 16th century that mentions the existence of ‘die Stadt van Lothrijck’ (Lotharingia), a reminiscence to an older center of power. This is corroborated by the fact that in the 13th century Velzeke still functioned as an important regional jurisdiction court (two benches of magistrates) with its own scriptorium and seal. Excavations around the church revealed some archaeological material and graves probably connected to an older, still undiscovered Carolingian place of worship preceding the Ottonian construction. 10 The Saint Martin’s church was dedicated to the patron saint of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. All this points to the presence of a Carolingian center of power and administration, a fiscus (royal demesne) with a church, scriptorium and possibly an aula. So Velzeke seemed to be the administrative capital of Biest, one of the four counties of the pagus Bracbatensis. 11 Fig. 11

Fig. 11: Map of the pagus Bracbatensis with the ancient county of Biest and Velzeke as the most probable Carolingian administrative center. Credit: Provinciaal Erfgoedcentrum Ename

Fig. 11: Map of the pagus Bracbatensis with the ancient county of Biest and Velzeke as the most probable Carolingian administrative center. Credit: Provinciaal Erfgoedcentrum Ename

When Otto II made Godfrey I of the house of Ardennes and Verdun margrave of this region, the latter first must have stayed at Velzeke before moving to Ename for its more advantageous economic and strategic position at the Scheldt. Nevertheless the initial Ottonian interests in Velzeke are amply exposed with the erection of a church reflecting imperial grandeur. The chronological match of AD 950-975 via radiocarbon and architectural analysis is fully compatible. Here the written sources also become vital, since they mention that the Godfrey’s son Herman buried his young children in the Saint Martin’s church, an evidence of his attachment to Velzeke before becoming the second margrave of Ename. Later he donated three domains on the territory of Velzeke to a monastery in Verdun. 12 Finally, different elements link early medieval Velzeke with its remote past: the close position between the Gallo-Roman road station and the Saint Martin’s church, the strategic position of the site, the partly preserved road system, the exploitation possibilities of the ruins of the vicus as a quarry, and even more its symbolic and then highly estimated emanation of Roman antiquity. Fig. 12

Fig. 12: Ancient doorway in the north wall of the chancel of the Ottonian Saint-Martin’s church, spolia (reused building materials) of the Gallo-Roman settlement and Roman tradition of architecture with rounded arches. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 12: Ancient doorway in the north wall of the chancel of the Ottonian Saint-Martin’s church, spolia (reused building materials) of the Gallo-Roman settlement and Roman tradition of architecture with rounded arches. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Archaeology

The substantial parts of the elevation of the Ottonian walls with its (now blocked) round arched windows and doorways incorporated in the late medieval Saint-Martin’s church still remains impressive. They were only recently revealed by the meticulous analysis and recording of the masonry. It turned out that the building entirely consists of tiles, stones, mortar and concrete fragments (spolia) proceeding from the ruins of the nearby Gallo-Roman vicus. Fig. 13 Fig. 14

Fig. 13: Architectural study of the north wall of the chancel of the Ottonian church with Gallo-Roman spolia, blocked arched doorway and window. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 13: Architectural study of the north wall of the chancel of the Ottonian church with Gallo-Roman spolia, blocked arched doorway and window. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 14: South side of the chancel of the Ottonian church with Gallo-Roman spolia, blocked arched windows and late medieval alterations. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 14: South side of the chancel of the Ottonian church with Gallo-Roman spolia, blocked arched windows and late medieval alterations. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

The ground plan is composed of a single, long rectangular nave (Saalkirche) and a slightly raised choir divided in a square chancel and an apse. The original church measures 44 × 12 m, but was most probably longer since the existence of a west choir under the late medieval bell-tower is presumed. Fig. 15 Then came the unexpected discovery of some large fragments of wall-paintings in Ottonian style enhancing even more the status of this peculiar building. Fig. 16

Fig. 15: Ground plan of the Saint Martin’s church with the preserved Ottonian parts. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 15: Ground plan of the Saint Martin’s church with the preserved Ottonian parts. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 16: Uncovering of Ottonian wall-paintings in the window of the north wall of the chancel. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 16: Uncovering of Ottonian wall-paintings in the window of the north wall of the chancel. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Radiocarbon dating of charcoals samples retrieved from mortar and plaster confirms the contemporaneity of architecture and decoration, i.e. around AD 950-975, a date that is corroborated by Badorf pottery fragments excavated from the foundation trenches. In fact such a monumental construction could not have stood isolated. Trial and rescue excavations uncovered two large, contemporaneous ditches around the church. Fig. 17 If much post-depositional processes (e.g. later tombs) wiped out earlier traces within the space enclosed by them, still some postholes point to one or even several large timber buildings. Older occupation referring to the Carolingian period was proved by the find in the western ditch of a horse bit, presumably of Avarian origin. Excavations in the church brought to surface different tombs dated between the end of the 7th and the late 9th centuries, as well as a Carolingian brooch proceeding from an older layer cut by the foundation trenches of the Ottonian church. 13 These telling indications are in all probability related to an early settlement, being the presumed site of the Merovingian, Carolingian and Ottonian administrative center. This is why Velzeke eagerly looks to the future to see more of its early medieval past brought to light by new research.

Fig. 17: Excavations east of the apse, bringing to light one of the two early medieval ditches around the Saint-Martin’s church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 17: Excavations east of the apse, bringing to light one of the two early medieval ditches around the Saint-Martin’s church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Art and Architecture

The recent revelation of the Ottonian origins of the church of Velzeke is of capital importance for the history of architecture and art in Belgium. The wall paintings can be considered as a notable contribution to the catalogue of the rarely preserved Ottonian wall-paintings in Europe. Finally, this huge construction, being a predecessor of the church of Saint Lawrence at Ename, is the oldest known relict of Ottonian style material culture at the western border of the empire. 14 The three arched windows in the apse also refer to Gallo-Roman architectural tradition, especially in the (re)use of the red fired tiles in the arches. Fig. 18

Fig. 18: Ottonian apse of the choir of the Saint Martin’s church with blocked windows. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 18: Ottonian apse of the choir of the Saint Martin’s church with blocked windows. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

The apse also preserves its original semi-domed vault in casted mortar. The triumph arch separating the apse from the chancel is still the original one. At both north and south interior sides the square chancel has two preserved walled arches, pierced by small windows with horseshoe shaped arches. Fig. 19 Of the nave only the corner walls have survived, indicating its maximal limits. Those on the west side contain two blocked doorways with shoe shaped arches. Fig. 20

Fig. 19: Elevation of the Ottonian Saint Martin’s church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 19: Elevation of the Ottonian Saint Martin’s church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 20: Part of the Ottonian west side of the church with blocked doorway with shoe-shaped arch integrated in later medieval alterations. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 20: Part of the Ottonian west side of the church with blocked doorway with shoe-shaped arch integrated in later medieval alterations. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Because of their eccentric position the existence of a west choir is presumed. The exterior of the church was completely plastered, but shows now the putlog holes of the masons. Fig. 21 The jambs of the chancel’s north window has a wall-painting with red and red brown floral motives. Fig. 22

Fig. 21: Putlog hole for the masons in the Ottonian church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 21: Putlog hole for the masons in the Ottonian church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 22: Ottonian wall-painting with floral motives in the jamb of the north window of the chancel. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 22: Ottonian wall-painting with floral motives in the jamb of the north window of the chancel. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

The north and south windows of the apse contained two pair of saints, of which one is well preserved. They could represent the four evangelists, but their position inclines specialists to identify them rather as prophets. Fig. 23 Fig. 24

Fig. 23: Wall-painting with a saint in the north window of the apse. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 23: Wall-painting with a saint in the north window of the apse. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 24: Detail of Ottonian wall-painting with a saint in the north window of the apse. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 24: Detail of Ottonian wall-painting with a saint in the north window of the apse. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Excavations in and around the church revealed some peculiar objects. A fine bronze rosette shaped and originally enameled brooch of the Ottonian age is considered of Frisian origin. Fig. 25 A bronze two-armed brooch with engraved linear decoration and a presumed Avarian horse bite originally bearing silver inlay are of Carolingian date. Fig. 26 Fig. 27 Imported and regional decorative art of this kind was already common in the preceding Merovingian period as becomes clear from the nearby cemeteries of Strijpen and Beerlegem. Most remarkable are a fine stylized bull head with silver decoration, part of a horse gear decoration and probably Langobardian or Allemanic, and a large Byzantine bronze basin with engraved Greek cross. Fig. 28 Fig. 29 A golden ring finds its parallel in a lady’s grave under the Cologne cathedral. 15 Fig. 30

Fig. 25: Bronze brooch of probable Frisian origin from the excavations around the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 25: Bronze brooch of probable Frisian origin from the excavations around the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 26: Carolingian bronze brooch from the excavations inside the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 26: Carolingian bronze brooch from the excavations inside the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 27: Horse bite of presumed Avarian origin found in the excavations around the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 27: Horse bite of presumed Avarian origin found in the excavations around the church. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 28: Horse gear decoration in the form of a bull’s head of Langobardian or Alamannic origin from the Merovingian cemetery at Strijpen, near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 28: Horse gear decoration in the form of a bull’s head of Langobardian or Alamannic origin from the Merovingian cemetery at Strijpen, near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 29: Byzantine bronze vessel from the Merovingian cemetery of Beerlegem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 29: Byzantine bronze vessel from the Merovingian cemetery of Beerlegem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 30: Golden ring from a sumptuous woman’s grave in the Merovingian cemetery of Beerlegem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 30: Golden ring from a sumptuous woman’s grave in the Merovingian cemetery of Beerlegem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

International connections

Archaeology demonstrated the supra-regional importance of Velzeke in a longue durée perspective. In the Gallo-Roman period it was a prominent marketplace importing Mediterranean and interregional goods, and it belonged to the hinterland producing wheat for the military bases at the Rhine limes. The road system continued to be used in early mediaeval times and the site survived as an administrative center. In the 4th and 5th centuries the region was crossed and partly colonized by Frisians, Saxons and Franks. Merovingian tombs yielded peculiar objects showing contacts with the North European regions and the Mediterranean. A Byzantine basin and horse gear decoration point to Ravenna and the Langobardian or Alamannic civilization. 16 Fig. 28 Fig. 29 Several weapons and brooches originate from Thuringia, Alamannia and Anglo-Saxon Britain. 17 Fig. 31 Fig. 32 If some of these objects proceed from gift exchanges, others were acquired by the still living southern commerce through the Rhône-Saône-Rhine axis.

Fig. 31: Decorated spear head of Alamannic origin found at Zingem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 31: Decorated spear head of Alamannic origin found at Zingem near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 32: Gilded Anglo-Saxon brooch from the Merovingian necropolis of Asper near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

Fig. 32: Gilded Anglo-Saxon brooch from the Merovingian necropolis of Asper near Velzeke. Credit: The Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum Velzeke

The horse bite of very probable Avarian origin found near the Saint Martin’s church reminds us of the campaigns of Charlemagne in the Central Europe. 18 Fig. 27 Various indications, especially its central position (interfluvium Scheldt-Dender) in the county of Biest indicates Velzeke’s primacy as a center of power in the Carolingian period. It proves also that the Roman roads were still intact, providing direct communication with the palatial centers in Aachen, Nijmegen and Ingelheim. 19 Fig. 2 Fig. 11 No wonder that subsequently the Ottonian emperors wanted to invest and show their authority in a huge new church building at Velzeke. The style of this construction fits perfectly in the architectural tradition of the lands of Maas and Rhine. What is left of its architecture nowadays remains impressive, and so the wall-paintings must have had their effect. 20 Fig. 19 The painters came probably from the same region, or from Central Europe, or maybe even from the Italian peninsula. At any rate, their production at Velzeke is easily identifiable with the koine of Ottonian wall-paintings. Fig. 22 Fig. 23 Fig. 24 If this period was undoubtedly one of the moments of grandeur of Velzeke, it soon was eclipsed by growing Ename. 21 Not at least under influence of Frisian commerce Fig. 25, economic and strategic weight was more centralized in the North Sea region with the river systems becoming the main axes of communication and discrediting the old Roman network that gradually felt in disuse. 22

References

10 van Durme, Luc, ‘De vroegere scabinale organisatie te Velzeke in ruimer perspectief. Met de uitgave en ontleding van twee vroegmiddelnederlandse schepenbrieven’, Jaarboek van de Zottegemse Culturele Kring, 21, 1976-1977, pp. 21-68
van Durme, Luc, ‘De zestiende-eeuwse archeologische en onomastische belangstelling voor Velzeke’, Handelingen van Zottegems Genootschap voor Geschiedenis 1, 1983, pp. 1-38
van Durme, Luc, Toponymie van Velzeke-Ruddershove en Bochoute, Gent, 1986
de Mulder, Guy and Rogge, Marc, ‘Op zoek naar het middeleeuwse Velzeke. De opgravingen op de site van de Sint-Martinuskerk. Resultaten 1995-1996’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 5, 1997, pp. 229-241

11 Bonenfant, Paul, ‘Le pagus de Brabant’, Bulletin de la Société belge d‘Études Géographiques, 5, 1935, pp. 25 – 76
Verhulst, Adriaan, De Sint-Baafsabdij te Gent en haar grondbezit (7e-14e eeuw). Bijdrage tot de kennis van de structuur en de uitbating van het grondbezit in Vlaanderen tijdens de middeleeuwen, Brussel, Letteren en Schone Kunsten van België, Klasse der Letteren, Verhandeling 30, 1958
Nonn, Ulrich, ‘Pagus und Comitatus in Niederlothringen. Untersuchungen zur Politischen Raumgliederung im früheren Mittelalter’, Bonner Historische Forschungen, 49, 1983, pp. 110-118
Rogge, Marc and Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 4, 1995, pp. 69-82
Lamarcq, Danny and Rogge, Marc (red.), De taalgrens. Van de oude tot de nieuwe Belgen, Leuven, 1996

12 Gorissen, Pieter, Sigeberti Gemblacensis Chronographiae Auctarium Affligemense, Brussel Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Wetenschappen, Klasse der letteren 15 , 1952
van Durme, Luc, Toponymie van Velzeke-Ruddershove en Bochoute, Gent, 1986
Callebaut, Dirk, ‘De Ottoonse grenspolitiek in het Midden-Scheldegebied en de sociale opgang van een Lotharingse familie’, Jaarboek van de Geschieden Oudheidkundige Kring van Oudenaarde, 48, 2011, pp. 373-426

13 de Mulder, Guy and Rogge, Marc, ‘Op zoek naar het middeleeuwse Velzeke. De opgravingen op de site van de Sint-Martinuskerk. Resultaten 1995-1996’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 5, 1997, pp. 229-241
de Mulder, Guy, Deschieter, Johan, ‘De speurtocht naar het middeleeuwse Velzeke. Een vervolgverhaal. Resultaten in 1997-1998’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 6, 1999, pp. 205-212
Rogge, Marc, Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’,Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 4, 1995, pp. 69-82
de Mulder, Guy, Deschieter, Johan, Rogge, Marc and Van Strydonck Marc, ‘De opgravingen op de site van de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke. Een voorlopig verslag van het onderzoek in 1999’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 7, 2001, pp. 169-180
Rogge, Marc, ‘Twee zeldzame Karolingische gelijkarmige fibulae uit Zottegem’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen 7, 2001, pp. 163-167
Callebaut, Dirk and Buyle, Marjan, ‘De Sint-Laurentiuskerk van Ename (stad Oudenaarde, prov. Oost-Vlaanderen), een vroeg-11 de -eeuws symbool van stabilitas regni et fidelitas imperatoris’, Archeologie in Vlaanderen, II, 1992, pp. 435-470

14 The architectural analysis was carried out by Zorik Zohrabyan, the conservation of the mural paintings by Marian Buyle (Onroerend Erfgoed, Flemish Government) and their art historical study by Matthias Exner (München).
Rogge, Marc, Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 4, 1995, pp. 69-82
Callebaut, Dirk and Buyle, Marjan, ‘De Sint-Laurentiuskerk van Ename (stad Oudenaarde, prov. Oost-Vlaanderen): een vroeg-11 de -eeuws symbool van stabilitas regni et fidelitas imperatoris’, Archeologie in Vlaanderen, II, 1992, pp. 435-470
Callebaut, Dirk, ‘De Ottoonse grenspolitiek in het Midden-Scheldegebied en de sociale opgang van een Lotharingse familie’, Jaarboek van de Geschied- en Oudheidkundige Kring van Oudenaarde, 48, 2011, pp. 373-426

15 Rogge, Marc and Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 4, 1995, pp. 69-82
Roosens, Helfi and Gyselinck, J., Een Merovingisch grafveld te Beerlegem. Archaeologica Belgica 170, Brussel, 1975
The finds of Strijpen are unpublished.

16 Roosens, Heli and Gyselinck, J., Een Merovingisch grafveld te Beerlegem. Archaeologica Belgica 170, Brussel, 1975

17 Rogge, Marc, ‘Drie lanspunten afkomstig van opgespoten terreinen te Zingem’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 10, 2007, pp. 41-68

18 Rogge, Marc and Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen, 4, 1995, pp. 69-82

19 Rogge, Marc, ‘Een bijdrage tot de studie van het Gallo-Romeins wegennet in de streek tussen Schelder en Dender’, Helinium, 12, 1971, pp. 124-153
Van Durme, Luc and Rogge, Marc, ‘Het Romeinse wegennet en de romanisering respectievelijk germanisering van noordelijk Henegouwen en zuidelijk Oost-Vlaanderen’, in Lodewijck, Marc (ed.), Archaeological and Historical Aspects of West-European Societies. Album Amicorum André Van Doorselaer. Acta Archaeologica Lovaniensia Monographiae 8, Leuven, 1996, pp. 145-152

20 Rogge, Marc, Deschieter Johan, ‘Bouwhistorisch en archeologisch onderzoek in en rond de Sint-Martinuskerk te Velzeke’, Archeologische Kroniek van Zuid-Oost-Vlaanderen 4, 1995, pp. 69-82

21 Callebaut, Dirk, ‘De Ottoonse grenspolitiek in het Midden-Scheldegebied en de sociale opgang van een Lotharingse familie’, Jaarboek van de Geschied- en Oudheidkundige Kring van Oudenaarde, 48, 2011, pp. 373-426

22 Lebecq, Stéphanie, Marchands et navigateurs frisons du haut Moyen Âge, Villeneuve d’Ascq, 1983
McCormick, Michael, Origins of the European Economy. Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 , Cambridge, 2001

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