By: Rudi Lebens †, Australia, May 2001
The first people lived in Limburg about 250.000 years ago. Proof of this was found in the Belvedere Quarry near Maastricht, where stone tools were discovered. These people lived from the hunt and from gathering nuts, roots and fruit and therefore we shall call them hunters-gatherers. Also from younger periods, when the climate was colder, stone tools were found in the valley of the river Maas. The hunter-gatherers mainly hunted reindeer and we shall call these reindeer-hunters.
Animals were plenty in this valley with lush grasses on the marshes to feed on and the water of the river to quench their thirst. The climate after a glacial epoch became milder and trees started to grow, forming groves alternated by marshy plains. From finds of fossils of marsh-tortoises we can conclude that the average July temperature must have been about 18 º Celsius, 2º higher than the present one. Remains of animals typical of the in-between glacial epochs, like horses, wood-elephants, plain-rhinos and various deer were found as well as wild boars and bears.
The flint tools and bones found in the Belvedere quarry were left in old campsites. By examining a flint knife under a microscope the scientists concluded that it was used to skin a thick-hided beast. The knife in the quarry was found between the teeth and bones of a young plains-rhino. Interesting is the find of red ochre, possibly used to decorate the body and preservation of hides for clothing or blankets.
The hunter-gatherers probably were nomads travelling round in groups of 25-40 persons. They made camp in a region where they could hunt easily for a while and there they constructed some huts from branches or lived in caves. The more varied their food was the more chances of a group to survive. From the camp the hunters hunted in a region 2 hours to and for from the camp. Contact with other groups improved their knowledge and exchanged marriages.
The pre-Neanderthal people probably lived in great awe of nature and huge animals. They tried to live in harmony with nature because they realised, that otherwise it would endanger their livelihood. Thousands of flint stone tools were found in the Belvedere quarry.
About 120.000 years ago began the last glacial epoch, which lasted till about 10.000 years ago. During this period grew in Limburg mosses, heath, herbs and low shrubs, much as at present in North-Scandinavia or North-Canada. Archaeologists found many remains of Mammoths, Woolly-Rhinos, bison, horses and reindeer and these were the animals our forefathers hunted. The people from this period are called Neanderthal after a skeleton found in a grotto in Neanderthal near the German City of Düsseldorf in 1964.
About 13.000 years ago the climate became milder and people from this period are called Cro-Magnon after a grotto in South France. They looked like us and are our direct ancestors. They replaced the Neanderthal in Europe from 40.000 years ago. Of these reindeer-hunters many archaeological finds have been made in East-Belgium, the valley of the Maas and in the Kempen area of Brabant. This area covers about 120 kilometres and these reindeer-hunters probably shifted twice a year between the northern and southern parts of their domain to coincide with the seasonal trek of the reindeer.
The belief of the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people was probably the same and strongly connected with nature. They buried their dead and flowers often are found in the graves. Paintings in grottos in Dordogne in France show the animals they hunted and those they respected as mammoths, lions and horses. Small images were also often found made of ivory or soft stone.
The First Farmers
After the last glacial epoch existed on the sandy ground of Middle-Limburg a varied landscape with brooks and marshes and a great variety of trees, plants and animals. It was therefore an ideal domicile for hunters, fishermen and food gatherers. In South-Limburg the wind had deposited layers of loss and after the climate change woods existed of age-old linden trees. Because of the one sided growth few animals were found and the area was thus not fit for the hunters. It was however ideal for agriculture. Round 5300 BC people who are called Band-Ceramics because they made ceramic pots and vases discovered the region. They learned to grow grains, peas and linseed and also how to press oils and fats from some plants. A few sheep, goats and pigs were also kept. Their food was 2/3 vegetable and 1/3 meat and fat.
The small villages lasted mostly a few hundred years, but after 400 years there came an abrupt end to the Band-Ceramics. The possible causes of the demise could have been a severe drought or an epidemic. Even overpopulation could have been the reason. Defensive palisades and moats have been found and point to unrest between tribes, which may have resulted in conflict.
Flintstone, bronze and copper
During the flint-stone period the need grew of good quality flint. From ± 3900 BC people mined flint in the difficult to reach flint quarries, where the flint existed in marl layers. About 2100 BC bronze came into use and ± 700 BC iron came into play. This did not change the way of living very much, however as the population grew agriculture played a greater roll. Copper and tin had to be imported from central Europe, France and England, but iron-ore could be obtained locally and did not need to be mixed with other materials. Tools were manufactured for use in agriculture and the earth was improved by the use of manure obtained from stabling cattle. Thus farmers did not have to move from place to place, as the earth became sour from overuse.
The dead were mostly cremated at first, but later burials became commonplace with individual dead interred under great mounds. Mostly the dearly departed were accompanied by beautiful ceramic beakers. The males were laid down on another side as the women, but both sexes were buried with their faces to the south. During the bronze period cremation became the norm again with the ashes put in an earthen urn and then placed in a grave. Firstly huge mounds were made to cover an individual grave, but later small mounds were constructed and we find tens of these small mounds together forming an urn-field. Some of these fields cover an area of 25 hectares with 700-1000 of small mounds out of the late bronze period and early iron period. Although there was not much difference in the graves of poor or rich, the offers made to accompany the dead varied greatly and many prestige bronze swords were recovered.
The Roman Commonwealth
Just before the beginning of our calendar the Romans settled in the valley of the Maas. They remained there for the next 400 years. This was the first time the population had to bow under a central regime. Limburg was governed from Rome like the other conquered countries and occupied by a standing professional army. The Romans not only defended their borders, but also constructed roads. Thus for the first time cities were formed. These were centres of government and religion as well as of commerce and art. For the native population agriculture remained the main raison d’être.
In the century before the birth of Christ the Eburones lived in Limburg with their leader a mighty warrior Ambiorix. He led the Eburones against the legions of Julius Caesar in ± 54 BC, who for some years tried to subject this district to the Romans. Ambiorix lured a Roman force of about 5000 out of their winter quarters in Atuatuca and destroyed them. The Eburone farmers were however no match against the professionally trained soldiers of Caesar and were beaten soundly in the next 3 years. They were mercilessly hunted and murdered. From ±12 BC the Romans settled in the valley of the Maas, where they reigned for the next 400 years.
Under Emperor Augustus (12BC-14AD) the Romans could not succeed in conquering the area between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. Emperor Tiberius therefore decided to make the river Rhine the border of the Roman Empire, so legion-strongholds (Castra) and forts (Castella) were established. Meanwhile the composition of the population in Limburg changed comprehensively. The partly depopulated region where the Eburones used to live was repopulated by General Marcus Agrippa, who settled the Ubians in the region of Cologne (Colonia Agrippina). Round Xanten (Colonia Triana) the Cugernes were settled by Tiberius and in the valley of the Maas the Tongers were settled with as capital Atuatuca. With these new settlers the Romans made treaties, so that they could recruit locals for their armies and acquired food supply for the legions.
Emperor Nero died in 68 AD and civil war broke out in Rome about the succession. The Bataves under the lead of Julius Civilis made use of the confusion and revolted. In the spring of 70 AD a might of 40.000 soldiers suppressed the revolt and the old situation was restored.
Emperor Vespasianus (69-79AD) had a stronghold built in Nijmegen (Noviomagus) to better control the Bataves and in the second century AD the number of Roman soldiers was brought back from 40.000 to 22.000. Maastricht (Trajectum ad Mosam) and Heerlen (Coriovallum) were 2 fortified towns, which became centres of trade under the Pax Romana. The local population adopted Roman customs and settled down to life under occupation.
In 235 AD the Pax Romana was severely disturbed by political unrest in the Roman Empire itself. Civil war brought an end to the period of prosperity. The Germans, who had previously invaded across the Rhine in small numbers made use of the unrest and invaded in mass, burned border-fortresses and murdered the population. During the fourth century AD several Roman Emperors, Constantine, Julianus and Valentinianus attempted to restore rest in the Rhineland. Many cities were provided with walls, like Maastricht, Tongeren and Cuijk. Most cities like Maastricht, Cologne, Xanten, Bonn and Aachen remained in Roman hands, however only a small part of the original inhabitants of Limburg came back. New people settled in the region and made treaties with the Romans. German soldiers became hirelings of the Romans and made up the majority of the border-army round 400 AD.
The Frankish Period
After the Romans abandoned the Rhine border the Germanic tribes streamed across the border into our land in great mass. The Franks and Saxons moved into the area in the Great Germanic Migration. The Frankish hirelings in service of the Romans received for their services weapons, grains, money and property. These hirelings had their own leaders and when the Romans departed they had to find ways of getting paid. The farmers of the region were fair game and these groups of hirelings formed into bigger armies. Their leaders became stronger and behaved like kings. In the beginning of the 6th century Clovis (466-511) succeeded in uniting a great number of these kingdoms and he started the Merovingian Kingdom, named after his grandfather Merovech. By conquest Clovis filled his treasury and by giving presents to other noblemen he increased his influence. By 600 AD the Merovingian kingdom stretched from the valley of the Maas to Nijmegen and by 700 AD the area above the great rivers was also subjected. When the treasury became empty the kings gave land in loan to loyal taxpaying underlings. They served their king in the army and helped in government and jurisdiction. The land returned to the king by the death of the noble as it was only given in loan. If a family was very loyal to the king the loan carried on from father to son.
The mightiest king of the Franks was Charlemagne (768-814), who was crowned emperor by the Pope Leo III in 800 AD. His empire stretched from Spain and Italy north to the Baltic Sea and east to the present Germany. His favourite city was Aachen, where he had his palace built. He used to hunt in the forests of south Limburg and an enormous statue of the emperor stands in the basilica of St. Servatius in Maastricht. The Dom of Aachen houses his tomb and his throne. For centuries after his death attempts were made to have him declared a saint, but the fact that he had many of his enemies slain was always against this. He had many children by different wives and after his death the kingdom was divided. Where Charlemagne had centralised the government of his empire his descendants did not maintain this and the tribes that before had been conquered rebelled again. Also the Normans began their raids in Europe and diminished the security of the divided empire.
During the Roman times a market-economy developed whereby the farmers sold their overproduction to the soldiers and citizens of the cities. After the Romans departed the population of the cities diminished rapidly and the newcomers from across the Rhine had their own ways of agriculture. The Frankish farmers now worked for their own subsistence only. The Roman villas deteriorated and fell into disrepair. The farms were only built from wood, branches and clay.
The first raids of the Normans occurred in Scotland and Ireland and were only on a small scale at the mouths of rivers. They probably returned to their homeland with rich booty and they extended their raids into England by the middle of the 9th century. During the rein of Charlemagne they could not get a foothold in his empire, but after his death there were rich pickings in important cities and monasteries on the continent. In April 879 AD a great Norman army landed in the mouth of the Schelde River from England and they joined up with other Norman armies already raiding there. After plundering the areas bordering the Schelde and Somme rivers they were defeated by the army of Louis III and driven north. They came down the Maas River under the Norman kings Godfried and Siegfried and plundered in 881-882 the area between the Maas and Rhine rivers. They built a stronghold near the city of Asselt, from where they terrorised the region. The cities of Maastricht, Liege and Cologne were sacked. The emperor Charles the Fat gathered armies from far and wide and besieged the stronghold of Asselt, but could not conquer the Normans. Finally king Godfried promised to become a Christian if he was allowed to reign over Friesland. The emperor agreed and even helped Godfried out of the baptismal font. Siegfried and the other Normans departed after they were given enormous amounts of silver and gold.
In the beginning of the 5th century Christianity seems to have been known in Maastricht. Five old Christian tombstones in the cemetery in and around the St. Servatius basilica bear witness of Christian life in Maastricht. The oldest stone is also the most impressive. It lays on the grave of the little Amabilis, a child four years old that died in the beginning of the 5th century. On this tomb stands the text:” Here lies Amabilis, in Christ, who lived 4 years, 6 months and 12 days.” It proves that there existed a Christian community in Maastricht. The first Christians probably came with Roman soldiers and tradesmen. In de middle of the 5th century a bishop of Tongres, Servatius settled in Maastricht. He was so popular that his grave there became an object of prayer and homage. A small wooden church was built, but it did not stand for long. Not till 1½ century later a large stone church was built under bishop Monulphus. The basilica is the oldest church in the Netherlands and many saints are buried in it. It has recently been restored and has many visitors.
Through the centuries religion grew in Limburg, so that by the beginning of the 20th century the province was 99% catholic. However the number of practising Christians has dramatically fallen by the start of the 21st century.
Cities and States
In the 10th century the might of the Frankish kings diminished. Noblemen succeeded in extending their power and properties. In the valley of the Maas the local government-unity remained small, however the counts and dukes managed to strengthen their grip on the government. Agriculture remained most important economically, but the cities expanded again through a boom in trade and industry. The prosperous citizens began to play a role in city-government and the cities like the nobles got greater influence in the state-government. The noblemen acted as deputies of the emperor, but in reality they ignored him. He who lived in a territorial area was a dependant of a count, duke, bishop or just an influential citizen with the title lord. These territories came into being by chance, conquest, marriage or purchase. In the valley of the Maas the political situation was very intricate and many noble families were involved in governing the area for the next few centuries.
Not till the beginning of the 15th century came some centralisation into being under the dukes of Burgundy. The most important of these was Charles V (1515-1555), who became emperor of Germany and king of Spain. His son Phillips II succeeded him and the power shifted from Germany to Spain. His politics led to the Eighty-Year War, which involved the armies of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, who rebelled against Spanish tyranny. Their leader was William of Orange and the armies of the participants crossed Limburg many times. The northern part of the Netherlands became mainly protestant after the Reformation, but Limburg, Brabant and Flanders remained catholic. The 7 northern provinces united and declared independence from Spain in 1581, but Limburg remained loyal to Spain.
Not until the defeats of Napoleon in 1814 were the Netherlands united under King William I, a descendant of Prince William the Silent of Orange. This union was however short-lived as the southern provinces withdrew from the union and formed the kingdom of Belgium. In 1839 Limburg was divided into a Belgian and Dutch part. People had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to become Belgian or Dutch. Most chose to remain with the Netherlands, but for many years was the relation poor. Many farmers’ sons emigrated in those days, because it was difficult to make a living from the soil.
Early in the 20th century coal was discovered in commercial quantities in the south of Limburg and many mines were started in the first 20 years. It meant work for many and the population grew rapidly. During World War I (1914-1918) our country remained neutral, but general mobilisation was declared. The great depression in the twenties affected many families, but welfare returned in the thirties. It turned out to be a calm before the storm. When World War II broke out in 1939 the German government assured us, that our neutrality would be respected. However on 10 May 1940 the German armies invaded our borders and our small army surrendered within a week. Military occupation followed till the end of the conflict in 1945.
After the war the coalmines became economically unprofitable and when vast reserves of natural gas were discovered in the north of the Netherlands they closed in the seventies. Apart from the large chemical concern DSM there remains no trace of the mines today. Limburg had to diversify to find work for its inhabitants.
The geological situation of Limburg between Germany and Belgium explains, why many inhabitants speak German and French besides their native Dutch. The province is only 75 km (abt 45 miles) from south to north and 35 km (abt 21 miles) wide. It dangles like an appendix below the rest of the Netherlands and with borders abandoned between EEC countries many people from Germany and Belgium work and shop in Limburg and visa versa.
Limburg may be small, but it is beautiful and full of history.