Close to airport of Osteende, Belgie, lies a proper hidden gem, the Walraversijde archaeological site.
The excavation of the deserted medieval fishing village of Walraversijde started in 1992. Due to the ravaging wars at the beginning of the 16th and 17th century the village had de facto been deserted. Hence, when archaeologist started digging, they were able to uncover a vide variety of material culture, which characterised this fishing community in the Middle Ages. Part of these rich findings have together with inspiration from amongst other sources the painted interiors of the Flemish Primitives resulted in a faithful recreation of four houses anno 1465.
A visit starts with an audio-visual presentation in which the history of the Domain of Raversijde is evoked by means of virtual reality technology. Then follows a walk through the reconstructed medieval landscape, which takes the visitor to four fisherman’s houses: the house of the rich ship-owner, the house of the fisherman’s widow, the house of the fisherman and his family and the fish smokehouse cum bakery.
This is followed by a ‘transitional experience’ where visitors move from a ruin of a village house to an archaeologist’s working space, thus returning to the 21st century. The excavation site is some metres away, exactly on the spot where the four fisherman’s houses were discovered.
The visit to the site ends with an exhibition in the museum buil-ding, where some of the original objects are displayed in their context by means of the latest interactive techniques.
Already in the 12th century a number of fishermens’ settlements existed along the coast. At that time the larger towns and ports had important fleets and organised off-shore ventures in the new lucrative marine enterprises. Walraversijde seems to have started as nothing but a seasonal mooring place, probably organised by the Counts of Flanders. Here large catches of herring and flatfish were landed and processed – either by drying, smoking or salting, using the local marine salt.
During the 13th and 14th century the built environment consisted of small dispersed groups of houses. Somewhat later the village moved inland and prospered due to the exploitation of the local resources: fish in the sea, peat for the saltworks and part-time labour from the populous inland. However, due to the extensive peat-digging, the dunes started drifting. Further, the coast was hit by the devastating St. Vincentius flood of 1394, which basically left the village in front of the dunes on the beach. Once more it was moved back. Due to the wars in the 16th and 17th century this settlement was eventually deserted, which left a virtual “plum” for the archaeologists.
What surfaced was a picture of a flourishing community with a large group of people, half of whom were away from home for along time. At the top were the Schliepiden, the captains and owners of the fishing vessels. These were manned with up to 20 free fishermen, who brought their own nets and had a share in the profits. These fishing enterprises were highly commercial.
An important precondition for success was access to local knowledge about pilotage or guidance of ships through the estuaries, the location of “good” fishing spots, the tackle and the conservation methods. Later, when fishing on the Doggersbank started, capital and investment in large fishing vessels came from the nearby cities like Oostende.
At that time Walraversijde consisted of around 100 houses, a common “draeyplats” for rope-making, the brewery, the local inn and from around 1435, a chapel. The settlement was quite compact, leaving no room for gardening or small household farming. People lived off the sea and the fish.
Brick was the dominant building materials of the thatched houses. The flooring was either made of bricks or just plain clay covered with sand. If the houses were large (more than a 100 m2) they were usually characterised by brick latrines, brick walls, red painted plastering and coloured glass windows. The heating device was situated against the wall or very close to the wall. Artificial light was made with bronze chandeliers or ceramic oil-lamps. In many houses Spanish lustre wares from Valencia, Màlaga and Sevilla were found, probably stemming from payment for piloting. As is usual for villages close to the shore, the material culture was also marked by income from privateering, wreckages and beach-combing.
All this and much more may be studied at the recreated village and in the museum.