The embanked floodplains of the lower River Rhine in the Netherlands contain large amounts of heavy metals, which is a result of many years deposition of contaminated overbank sediments. Depending on local sedimentation rates and changing pollution trends in the past, the metal pollution varies greatly between different floodplain sections as well as vertically within the floodplain soil profiles. Maximum metal concentrations in floodplain soils vary from 30 to 130 mg/kg for Cu, from 70 to 490 mg/kg for Pb and from 170 to 1450 mg/kg for Zn. In the present study these metals were used as a tracer to reconstruct sedimentation rates at 28 sites on the lower River Rhine floodplains. The temporal trend in pollution of the lower River Rhine over the past 150 years was reconstructed on the basis of metal concentrations in sediments from small ponds within the floodplain area. Using a one-dimensional sedimentation model, average sedimentation rates over the past century were determined using an inverse modelling calibration procedure. The advantage of this method is that it uses information over an entire profile, it requires only a limited number of samples, it accounts for post-depositional redistribution of the metals, and it provides quantitative estimates of the precision of the sedimentation rates obtained. Estimated sedimentation rates vary between about 0·2 mm/year and 15 mm/year. The lowest metal concentrations are found in the distal parts of floodplain sections with low flooding frequencies and where average sedimentation rates have been less than about 5 mm/year. The largest metal accumulations occur in low-lying floodplain sections where average sedimentation rates have been more than 10 mm/year. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.