The cultural history collection has its origins in the "Museum für Alterthümer der Umgebung", founded in 1845, the forerunner of the Clemens Sels Museum Neuss. The holdings include Neuss soil finds from the Upper Paleolithic to the beginning of the 19th century as well as everyday objects from the 16th to the 20th century.
That the Neuss area has been populated since pre-Roman times is shown by archaeological finds from the city area, in cluding an approximately 30,000 year old knife dating from the last Ice Age.
Around 13,000 BC the climate began to warm rapidly and forests spread through the tundra in the Rhine Valley. In the first millennium after the end of the Ice Age, the Mesolithic Age, humans lived as hunters and gatherers. Flintstone flakes and tools in the ground still mark the Mesolithic encampments on the Norfbach, in the Roselle fault and in the Hummelbachaue in Neuss. Around 5500 BC the agricultural revolution that had developed in the Middle East arrived in the fertile loess soil of the Rhineland – the start of the Neolithic. The farmers of the New Stone Age planted grains, beans and lentils and bred cows, sheep, goats and pigs. The Neuss area was first colonized in the mid-Neolithic, in settlements known from Norf and Rosellen among others. Around 2800 BC the first metal objects – including jewelry and axe and dagger blades made of copper found their way to the Rhine from the south. By 1800 BC bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, had established itself for metalwork to such an extent that the follow ing centur ies are known as the Bronze Age. Finds from this epoch are rare in Neuss. Around 700 BC bronze gave way to iron as the most widely used metal. Finds from the early pre-Roman Iron Age (around 700–500 BC) are known from Allerheiligen, Reuschen berg, Selikum and Gnadental as well as in Neuss city proper. Recently a settlement and a burial site dating from the early pre-Roman Iron Age were excavated at a golf course in Norf.
Novaesium, as Neuss was known in antiquity, is the oldest Roman military site on the Lower Rhine.
The Romans first set up a military camp in Neuss around 30 BC, and for the next 400 years life in the region was largely defined by the military. In this period the Romans achieved a civilizational infrastructure only matched by that in the modern era. The early camps in Novaesium were temporary fortifications of wood and earth that were used as base camps for military operations in Germania east of the Rhine River. Only after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD and the end of the Roman expansion in the areas east of the Rhine was a sequence of camps erected with sturdy wooden buildings for stationing army units all year round. Around the camps a civilian settlement known as canabae legionis grew up, populated by the families of the soldiers along with merchants and craftsmen. In 43 AD a new camp was built directly where the Erft flows into the Rhine today to house first the 16th and then the 6th Legion with their auxiliaries, numbering around 6,000 soldiers each. The buildings were initially made of wood, but soon replaced by stone structures. In the late 19th century Constantin Koenen, an archaeologist from Neuss, excavated the camp in its entirety, thereby writing archaeological history. When the 6th Legion was moved to Xanten around 100 AD the 24 hectare fort was abandoned. A few decades later an auxiliary camp was built on the site to station a cavalry unit of some 500 men. Novaesium remained a Roman garrison well into the 4th century.
The medieval history of Neuss is preserved not only in documents and images but through archaeological remains, many of which have been studied by the Urban Archaeology Service of the city of Neuss.
In addition to the objects owned by the former Neuss Ancient History Association and the Sels Collection they form the basis of the collection on medieval urban history in the Clemens Sels Museum Neuss. In the 9th century a small market area grew on the bank of the Rhine built on top of the ruins of the Roman civilian settlement around today’s Romaneum. The colony expanded to become a town and acquired a city wall in the 12th century. A central role in Neuss’s history is played by the cult of St. Quirinus. The Roman tribune and martyr, whose remains have been kept in Neuss since the 9th century, was the patron saint of the city and was appealed to for help in numer ous diseases. The saint’s relics stored in the St. Quirinus Cathedral made Neuss an important place of pilgrimage. The successful resistance to the siege by Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, whose forces surrounded Neuss for nearly 10 months in 1474–1475, is another important chapter in the city’s history. Many finds of weapons and pieces of equipment bear witness to the heavy fighting during the siege. The museum collection includes not only the remains of war, but evidence of Neuss’s crafts and trade. An diverse group of ceramic and glass vessels informs us about eating habits and table manners in Neuss in the Middle Ages, as do the remains of plants and animal bones that have been found in excavations.
In the early modern period Neuss declined in importance. During the storming of the city by Spanish troops in the conflict known as the Cologne War a fire broke out and destroyed the medieval part of the town.
During the Thirty Years’ War Neuss was occupied by Protestant Hessian troops. In 1672 the French king Louis XIV began building a citadel for which numerous buildings had to be torn down, a project which aggravated the city’s already precarious financial situation. It was only after the period of the Electorate that Neuss experienced an economic upswing with new impulses brought by the French occupation of the Rhineland in 1794. The economic freedom introduced by the French administration stimulated skilled crafts and trades, while the elimination of many tolls following the annexation of the Rhineland into the French empire promoted commerce and made Neuss an important transshipment place for agricultural goods. Nearly all the monasteries and cloisters in the city were closed down, and their possessions seized by the state and sold to private buyers. The economic boom went hand in hand with improvements to infrastructure. After the construction of the Nordkanal, a canal designed to go from Neuss to Antwerp, had failed in the Napoleonic period the Neuss city administration began the expansion of the Rhine port to enable larger ships to call at Neuss. The road network was improved as well. In 1853 Neuss was connected to the Düsseldorf-Aachen railway line. The second half of the 19th century was dominated by industrialization. Numerous industrial enterprises settled in the Neuss port area. They offered work to many people and caused a busy influx of workers from the surrounding area. Around 1900 Neuss had some 30,000 residents.