From camp to village: Velzeke, a Gallo-Roman vicus
by: P. Dionysius Mus

Caius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, known better as the emperor Augustus, divided his empire into many different administrational units: Provincia Belgica was the territory of the Belgae, Treveri and Germani, with the Rhine as border in the north and east; the river Seine in the south and the North Sea in the west. These 'provinciae' were further divided in smaller units called 'civitates' (Civitas Treverorum, Civitas Nerviorum, Civitas Menapiorum, …). All cities and smaller settlements were built on important crossroads where Roman roads, rivers and canals came together. They could also be built next to permanent or temporary army camps. And this is what happened at Velzeke. During the reign of Augustus or Tiberius (27BC-37AD) an early Roman army camp was built at Velzeke. It was constructed on the road from Boulogne (France) to Köln (Germany). There may also have been a small Gallic settlement next to it, but there are not enough archaeological evidences to prove this. Along with any Roman army at that time came 'mercatores', merchants, who lived next to the camp to provide the army with necessary goods. But when the army left, the merchant village at Velzeke, possibly mixed with the Gallic settlement, stayed and expanded further. This course of action can also be traced along Hadrian's Wall in Great Britain, where the Romans mixed with the locals during their long army career. The location at Velzeke seemed excellent for a big trade centre, a big regional market place. Many 'villae' were built in the neighbourhood and the settlement became the most important 'vicus' (see further) in the south-east of Flanders.


Around 1950 some amateur archaeologists discovered different items at Velzeke and they thought there could be an important settlement in the neighbourhood. They reported their findings to Prof. Dr. De Laet of the University of Ghent, and after he visited the site himself they agreed on the possibility of a large Roman settlement. De Laet published his hopeful results and conclusions, and ten years later these were confirmed by Marc Rogge (University researcher, now head of the museum). Digging started in 1976, and soon they discovered an irregular rectangle of about 5ha, the Roman army camp. Further excavations revealed a large and long-stretched settlement, with rudimentary streets and houses built of wood and sandstone. Many different implements were found, from all kinds of sectors (see further). Also, the sites of two sanctuaries were discovered (with small bronze and wood statues representing Roman gods) lack of money slowed down the excavations, and even stopped them in the early 90's, because the archaeologists were constantly sent elsewhere for other emergency excavations. Nowadays a small but nice museum shows the many objects that were found, and a beautiful Roman garden is built next to the museum.


The excavations revealed a 5ha army camp, surrounded by three wide, pointed moats and an earth wall with palisade. Three reasons make clear that this camp dates from the time of Augustus: first, the form of the camp is typical for the period of Augustus-Tiberius. Second, a coin is found (a denarius) with the image of Caius Iulius Caesar. Third, the remains of pottery found there could be dated rather exactly in that period. Except for the walls, there were no traces of the other camp buildings, most likely because the camp was left later on and everything will have been carried away with them. The exact function of the army and camp there is not known. It could have been only for the pacification of northern Gaul, but it is also possible that this army had to serve in the annexation of Germania, an ambitious plan by Augustus, but he never succeeded.


Next to the camp a Gallo-Roman 'vicus' was found. 'Vicus' was the name for all kinds of settlements (except the official 'coloniae', 'municipia' and 'villae rusticae'). These 'vici' could consist of one street with a few houses, or some more streets, or it could be a small or even big town. They were usually built at crossroads of military and strategic roads, or next to camps and watch posts. The 'vicus' at Velzeke was mainly depending on trade. The settlement was a big market place for import and export of implements, luxury goods and food. Typical grey pottery from northern Gaul, natural stone utensils like millstones, or luxury goods like glass, 'terra sigilata', oil laps in terracotta or jewellery; they were all traded at Velzeke. The more local economy was based on various crafts: bronze, iron and leather industry, carpentry, weaving and of course food production.


Among the findings there is a lot of pottery: 'terra sigilata' (decorated or not) with a few name stamps, typical Belgian 'terra nigra' and 'terra rubra', varnished pottery, so-called Pompeian red pottery, bronzed pottery (with a thin cover of bronze or gold on the inside or outside), and of course many 'dolia' and 'amphorae' (big containers for food and drinks). Glass is also found, mostly light blue but transparent. And five coins (next to the already mentioned coin with Caesar): a denarius from Hadrianus' time, a dupondius/as from Antoninus Pius, a denarius from Elagabalus, an unknown one and one well preserved denarius from emperor Macrinus (217-218), with on the front side the inscription IMP C M OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG and an ornamented effigy with a laurel wreath. On the other side it reads IOVI CONSERVATORI with an image of Iuppiter, lightning in his right hand and a sceptre in his left. There are also some other metal findings, mostly 'fibulae', but also a key, spatula, a little bell and a decorated button. All these materials can now be seen in the museum in Velzeke.


Excavations at the site have thus revealed a great part of Velzeke's early history. The Gallo-Roman 'vicus' and the many 'villae' in the surroundings make clear that this was an important place in Roman Gaul. The museum tries to preserve this history for the coming generations, and is interesting for archaeologists as well as schools and families. From Roman army camp to Gallo-Roman 'vicus', from 'vicus' to Merovingian village, and so on to the current town. Archaeology and history are telling us a story about ordinary people, a story to be remembered.
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