• Hans Faber

The Raider’s Portrait of Appels

figurehead of Appels (Belgium)

In the year 1934, while dredging upstream the River Scheldt near the village of Appels in the region of Flanders, an extraordinary ship’s figurehead was found. It is dated around the year 400. Among scholars there seems agreement it is Germanic and originates from the southern North Sea coast. Hitherto, no people has claimed being the rightful owner of this remarkable piece of carved wood. Of course, the descendants of the northern raiders considered it. Alas, the Vikings only started their raiding operations four centuries later. Well, today, on July 31, 2021, it has been claimed. Indeed, by the Frisian people.

If you look at the terrifying sculpture (see featured image above), imagination starts running wild. Imagine, twenty to thirty warriors in a ship, rowing way up the River Scheldt in the dead of night. Perhaps a Raubschare ‘war band’ of three ships. Men tough as Nails. All shielded. Carrying a long saex ‘knife’, a spear and some even had an iron helmet. “Iesenere mannen in de houten schepen,” (‘iron men in wooden ships’) as the last surviving skipper of the traditional rescue rowboats along the Dutch North Sea coast, Jan IJes Teerdstra of island Schiermonnikoog, described these rowers in 1976.

They prepared their raid carefully at the distant shores of the Wadden Sea last winter. Through trade contacts and previous raids, they had gathered precise information about the treasure to be found, calculated how many warriors were needed in order to have supremacy in battle, figured out the navigation on the meandering river etc. Now it was early spring or summer, and they carried out their cunning plans and made the attack. Rowing from the Wadden Sea coast up the River Scheldt would have taken them about ten days.

The figurehead of Appels is made of oak and 149 centimetres long. It is estimated that the ship to which it belonged had a length of eighteen metres. Furthermore, the figurehead was dismountable. Maybe when raiding, it was mounted. Like the Jolly Roger flag with its skull image centuries later.

The unique piece is kept on the wrong side of the English Channel, namely at the British Museum. Soon, a request will be filed with the British Government to return this piece of national heritage to the Frisians. Possibly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will challenge the request. But the Frisians have excellent credentials.

In our blog post It all began with piracy earlier, we described how from the second century onward the peoples of the southern North Sea coast engaged in full-swing piracy. And how it was the bases for a new common North Sea culture. From their homelands north and east of the limes, thus outside Roman control, they pillaged the Roman coasts south of the River Rhine, on both sides of the English Channel, of East England, and of Brittany. In the course of the third century the Romans responded with creating the Litus Saxonicum, which was basically a series of coastal defensive structures and the deployment of naval bases. Eventually, all with no avail.

The zenith of piracy happened in tandem with strong, natural erosion of the southern coast of the North Sea. Say, from the town of Nieuwpoort in Belgium to that of Esbjerg in Denmark. Due to sediment exhaustion of the sea, the North Sea became ‘high-energetic’ from the second or third century onward, and started eating and degenerating the southern coastal zone (Tys 2002). Filling its stomach with more sediment again. Dune rows protecting the coast were breached, and the salty sea carved itself deep into the sweet interior. Swallowing masses of peatland and forest.

It is also in the third century that the Frisians started to migrate south, to the delta regions of the rivers Meuse, Waal and Scheldt. They also moved upstream the River Scheldt. At the village of Zele in Flanders, typical hand-shaped Frisian ware vessels have been excavated dating from this period. Furthermore, they were, in fact, Frisians and not Franks who revolted against Emperor Constantius I in the River Scheldt region in the year 293. The Romans, however, were successful in crushing the rebellion and deported both the Frisians, calling them praedatores ‘looters’ by the way, and the Chamavi to the Gaulish interior (Dhaeze 2019).

This is our plea and it should suffice. Now, Boris, hand over the damn piece of ancient wood. Before big apples become angry!

Note 1 – The figurehead of Appels was part of the Maertens de Noordhout Collection, together with five other wood-carved dragon- or animal heads. Between 1930-1950 six such heads were found in the upper valley of the River Scheldt. Besides Appels, two heads were found at Hamme, one at Moerzeke-Mariekerke, one at Wetteren, and one at Zele. The head of Moerzeke-Mariekerke is dated ca. AD 350, and of Zele ca. AD 690. Of the three pieces of Hamme and Wetteren we have till this day no idea how old they are. The British Museum aquired the three heads of Appels, Moerzeke-Mariekerke and Zele. More recent research dates this head between ca. 390-550. The head of Moerzeke-Mariekerke is therefore also interesting in the context of this blog post. It is unclear whether it belonged to a ship, a piece of furniture, or you just name it.

animal head Moerzeke-Mariekerke, Flanders

Note 2 – In our blog post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders, you can find more information about the presence of the Frisians down there.

Suggested music

The Stone Roses, Fools Gold / What the World is Waiting For (1989)

Further reading

Bruce-Mitford, R., Ships figure head in the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages (1970)

De Graeve, A., Het vergeten deel van de collectie Maertens de Noordhout boven water gehaald. Studie naar de vroegmiddeleeuwse rivierdeposities in de Scheldevallei (2010)

Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coast Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)

Fontijn, D., Economies of Destruction. How the systematic destruction of valuables created value in Bronze Age Europe, c. 2300-500 BC (2020)

Haan, de A.C. (ed), Roeiend redden. Het roereddingwezen van Texel tot Schiermonnikoog (19760

Hollevoet, Y. & Roeyen, van J.P., Germanic Settlers at Sint-Gillis-Waas? (1992)

Loveluck, C.P. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600-1000 (2006)

Tys, D., De inrichting van een getijdenlandschap. De problematiek van de vroegmiddeleeuwse nederzettingsstructuur en de aanwezigheid van terpen in de kustvlakte: het voorbeeld van Leffinge (2002)