This is your DIY manual for enlarging or creating your own terp. Your artificial settlement mound or platform. Despite terps are being made for more than 2,600 years, this manual is the first of its kind. We sincerely hope it is not too little too late, now that terp-building is on the rise again and we have observed it happens often in an amateurish way. With that taking unnecessary risks.
Although most terps were built in the period between 650 BC and AD 1050, it is still a current solution. Take for example the terp of the town of Wieringerwerf in the reclaimed land of Wieringermeer Polder in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands. The town was founded in ’30s last century. The terp of Wieringerwerf was even of service at the end of World War II when the dikes of the Wieringermeer Polder were destroyed. Read our blog post Refuge on a terp 2.0, waiting to be liberated, about this catastrophe. The most recent terps were built ten years ago, in region Overdiepse Polder in province Noord Brabant, the Netherlands. It is part of the Delta Plan after serious flooding caused by the big rivers Rhine and Meuse a two decades ago.
However. It deeply troubled the Nordfriesen and the Ostfriesen in Germany, and the Frisians in province Friesland in the Netherlands, that the folks of province Noord Brabant, and of province Noord Holland already before, do not obey all necessary procedures. In time this might have very serious consequences for the safety and health of people who dwell on these terps. Therefore, Frisia Coast Trail felt it was urgent to produce a manual to avoid future, similar irresponsible behavior.
Be warned that children should construct terps only under direct supervision of an adult. Adults should read the instructions, and in particular all warnings, carefully. Of course, we are not responsible for any injuries or accidents.
Let’s start. Be prepared, it is literally a lot of bullshit!
If you want to know where in the landscape building a terp is opportune, check the site www.overstroomik.nl (translation: will I be submerged?) provided by the Netherlands’ Government. Really, this site and its title are not meant to scare people, but to show you where your house submerges in case a dike breaks, and to be prepared. These are the spots where this manual comes in handy. The website is only available in Dutch language, and thus not accessible for expats living in the Netherlands. The number of expats is between 40,000 and 75,000 persons and are mostly living in the low-laying coastal zone of Noord Holland and Zuid Holland. Who is counting.
- eight (or more) skulls of ancestors
- ten kilogram cattle meat with bones
- one heirloom piece
- three cooking pans (not too small)
- ten kilogram pottery
- eight hundred cubic meter cow dung (depending on your ambitions)
- stack of firewood
- box fire matches
- sea shells (enough to cover the terp surface)
Best time to erect a terp is in early summer. You don not want to work with dung in the heavy spring, autumn and winter rains. Also, for the containers (see Step 7 below) to drain would take ages. Last but not least, making fires (see Steps 8 and 9 below) in these rains is nearly impossible.
- Place your ancestral skulls at the spot where you want the terp to be erected, or an existing terp enlarged. WARNING!: Do not hurry off to kill some of your (close) family members. No! You need to collect remains of your already deceased family members. The terp is to protect you and your family, and the remains will call upon your ancestors for extra protection. Instead, there are many Grave Registration Services on the internet that can help you to locate graves of your ancestors. Some traditions recommend to add a dog skull. This manual considers it optional, as this practice of dog skulls is more related to the maintenance of a house and not that of a terp.
- Place the meat with bones near the human skulls. Make a little pile of it. The traditional way was that several cows were slaughtered for the occasion. You can go to a local butcher but spare ribs from the supermarket will suffice too. Argentinian matured T-bone steaks are unnecessary expensive, and do not give a better result. Of course, we stimulate to use biological products. An option of last resort is to use jelly sweets, since they consist partly of cattle bone. As a rule of thumb: ten kilogram jelly sweet for every kilogram of meat.
- Place the heirloom piece near the skulls too. Taking a piece from your in-laws is acceptable as long as it has serious sentimental value for your in-law family. It is up to you whether or not you ask permission from your loved in-laws.
- Now the hard work starts. It feels like Heracles cleaning the Augean stable. Dump the cow dung with the shovel gently over the skulls and over all the other items. There is no alternative but to use predominantly cow dung, since it has a great insulating effect. No human dung, please. Sorry, keep using toilets. WARNING!: Neither horse dung, since it is highly infectious. Blending with sheep dung is not such a problem. Where it comes down to, is that you need loads and loads of dung. In this respect not much has changed over the last 2,600 years: cow dung has always been plentiful at the salt marshes. In the old days used for fuel and, of course, for building terps. Later, after the big dikes emerged 1,000 years ago, and the sea was banned, dung was suddenly needed as fertilizer. And, its insulating effects are now a threat for the climate.
- Dig ditches around the terp. About a meter wide, but not much broader. For a man of average weight and strength it must be possible to fierljep (‘to far-leap’) over the ditch with a four-meter-long leaping pole. The ditches have multiple purposes. Firstly, they are for draining purposes. Secondly, they mark your territory. Thirdly, they have a spiritual meaning, namely fencing of the inner world form the outer (scary) world. Check the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, the eighth-century list of heathen practices of the Frisians and the Saxons.
- Wait until dusk.
- At dusk, take the cooking pans and drill a small hole in the bottom. Similar as the Mayas later did too with the pottery they buried with the dead. The traditional way of the Frisians was to grab used cooking pots of clay. Essence is that you need containers. Then and now. So, modern pans are perfectly okay to use. Mark the pans from the outside with some of your own blood. No specific patterns prescribed. Fill the pans with a sticky substance that slowly drips through the hole into the dung. Place these containers on the spot above the skulls, meat and heirloom piece.
- Make a few small piles of wood and light the piles. Again, above the spot where the skulls are buried. WARNING!: Make sure the cow dung is not too dry, to prevent the whole terp from catching fire. Dried dung is flammable. And we are not in Nordfriesland in February during biikin celebrations.
- Wait until the liquid in the cooking pans has fully been drained into the dung. You will have enough time to have dinner in the meantime. Important to keep the fires burning.
- Collect the pottery once the liquid is drained. It can be all sorts of pottery. If you are tired of the Delft Blue wall tiles; use those. But roof tiles, your neighbor’s china, et cetera, is fine too. Smash the pottery with a hammer and bury it together with the empty perforated cooking pans in a pit somewhere in the newly created terp. Smash or deform the pans too. The Frisians were fanatics in breaking pottery and collected meaningful pieces for decades. If you think this is weird, think of a Greek wedding.
- Dump some of the pottery pieces in the ditches surrounding your terp too. If you have some spare bones of your ancestors left, put it there together with the pottery pieces. It stresses the mark of your territory like a dog pisses against a tree. And, the water in the ditches protects your house or inner-world against the spiritual, angry outer-world as well.
- Lastly, cover the surface of the new terp with a thick layer of sea shells to have a solid and less smelling floor.
Between Leffinge and Misthusum: Understanding Terps
First of all, we must make clear that the terps we dealt with in this manual, are terps built on the clay soils of the (former) salt marshes.
A terp, in essence, is a man-made, raised mound to dwell on, and to protect buildings from inundation. Whether that is at the tidal marshlands near the sea, on the peat soils adjacent to the salt marshes, or along rivers and at river mouths. Exactly the habitats of broader historic Frisia. Terps can be a mound for a single house, a platform, or a mound for a small settlement.
Therefore, besides the terps at the salt marshes ‘salty terps’, this definition includes the hundreds of terps founds in the peat soils of modern province Noord Holland, especially in region Waterland, but also the town terps of places like Monnickendam and, yes, Amsterdam. ‘Sweet terps’, in connection with rivers and peat soils, existed in the thousands in the Netherlands (Besteman et al, 1992).
The ‘sweet terps’ of the (former) peat soils were mainly house platforms. Furthermore, the terps of the peat soils all have become invisible. The reason for that is, that peat behaves like water, only in slow motion. It flows too, and over the centuries it levels with its surroundings. The terps made of clay and dung on the tidal marshlands, however, remained.
To complicate things further, the distinction between salt and sweet water, was in practice fluid, especially in much of the peat areas. Either you are a delta or you are not. The terps at the mouth of the river IJssel, like the one at the hamlet of Kampereiland, along the Frieseweg ‘Frisian road’ also belong to this category.
‘Salty terps’ can be found in relatively large numbers especially along the Wadden Sea coastal zone of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The oldest terps can be found in the region Westergo of province Friesland. From there, terps spread eastward into Germany. The northernmost terp is that of Misthusum in southwestern Denmark. It has been abandoned in the year 1814, though.
Because people lived on terps on the tidal marshlands, before high dikes existed, the sea could flow out over a vast area of marshlands during storm floods. The terps were on average not much higher than 4 meters above mean sea level (MOD, Meters above Ordnance Datum). Higher was simply not necessary. The sea just flowed out during storms without, in general, causing too much damage because of this enormous storage capacity.
The highest terp of all is the one at Hogebeintum, namely almost +9 MOD. Why the people of the village Hogebeintum built such a high terp when +4 meters was already enough, we do not know. Was it perhaps to show off? “Look us having a big terp!”
Other ‘salty terps’ can be found elsewhere too, i.e. not along the Wadden Sea coast. For example more to the south in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands, like Avendorp, Eenigenburg and Hemkewerf near the town of Schagen. Further south you can find them at the towns of Bredene en Leffinge-Oude Werf (also being the most southern terp) near Oostende in Belgium. Also on the (former) Islands of Marken and Schokland, in the (also former) Zuiderzee ‘Southern Sea’. Island Marken still is, more or less, an island or Hallig, whilst Schokland is now part of the reclaimed land called Noordoostpolder. Even underneath the town of Den Helder in the north of province Noord Holland, lies an old ‘salty terp’ waiting for its revenche, named Het Torp.
Recently (2019) the federation Broekpolder reconstructed the so-called Rotta house (Rottahuis) with platform of 1015 at the town of Vlaardingen, province Zuid Holland, then called West Frisia. It illustrates how people lived in the river delta of the Meuse.
Some more words on the distinction between a terp supporting several houses and/or farms (village), and a terp supporting solely one farm or one house. The latter may not even be called a terp, according to tradition. As a Frisian farmer living on a house platform near the village Sexbierum (pronounced as ‘sex-beer-rum’) in province Friesland explained once:
“It is a platform, not a terp!”
Never ever contradict a Frisian farmer. But more subtle, you could hear a kind of sacred-like respect for terps in his voice. It was simply an insult to compare a terp with a house-platform. As if a terp is a living thing. Bit the same saying to a Nordfrisian that a Hallig (see below) is an island. He will correct you, say it is not an island, say in a mopey voice “moin” to you, and walks -or swims- away. He is right in the way that halligs used to be part of a vast salt-marsh area that largely was lost to the sea over the course of the High Middle Ages. Too fresh in the memory in the psyche of the North-Frisians to be forgotten, if ever. Admitting it is an island, would be admitting your defeat against your eternal enemy, and benefactor, that took so much fertile land, and especially so many lives.
When talking about numbers, the estimation is about 500 terps in the (former) marshlands of provinces Friesland (Besteman, et al, 1992). The house platforms have been left outside this number. Numbers vary too. During a stock-take, including house platforms, in 1905 the number was 574 terps in province Friesland, in 1944 it were 910. The most recent numbers (2020) are that in province Friesland 955 terps have been identified, of which 679 have been partially or completely leveled, in province Groningen 587 of which 268 haven been partially or completely leveled. However, still new terps are being discovered in the landscape. The total, original, number of terps in the Netherlands, both terps proper and house platforms, is estimated almost 2,500 (Nieuwhof, 2020).
Therefore, if we want to be more precise, we should talk about ‘terp remains’ instead of terps since nearly all terps have been commercially exploited and excavated. The only terps you can see in province Friesland and Groningen, are the remains of once much more impressive terps, or those that are fully covered with houses, church and farms and therefore escaped commercial exploitation.
Around the year 1900, terps in the Netherlands (less in Germany) were being excavated massively for commercial purposes. The rich terp soil, the terra preta of th Low Countries, was sold as fertilization of poorer soils, such as the sandy soils in province Drenthe. Terp soil was sold at 70 cent (guilders) per tonne in 1890, which was a lot of money. In 1920 the soil even cost 110 cents per tonne. In the ’40s the commercial quarrying of terp soil stopped, Not because of the War started. Simply because not many terps were left to exploit. A positive side effect was, that because of these excavations many artifacts have been found. At the same time, much historical data has been lost, and small artifacts are scattered all over the country.
Although most ‘salty terps’ have lost their protective function after land has been secured by big-dike-building from around the start of the eleventh century, there is one big exception, namely those in Kreis Nordfriesland. Here one can still witness people living on terps within the full dynamics of the sea, unprotected by high dikes. These are the so-called halligs mentioned earlier, which are salt-marsh ‘islands’ with one or a few terps built on it. Terps, sometimes supporting only one farm or house, sometimes supporting a small village. For more information about the halligs, read also our blog post How a town drowned overnight. Currently, the terps in Nordfriesland are being raised once again, to brace themselves for climate change and rising sea levels.
Finally, notice that we used the word terp as used in province Friesland -and recently in province Noord Brabant too. People in province Noord Holland, however, mostly use the word werf. In province Zeeland the word werve is being used. Mainly because people there prefer to put an e behind every single word they pronounce. In region Ommelanden in province Groningen, the word wierde is being used. Official German is Wurt but the Ostfriesen and the Nordfriesen use mainly resp. Warf and Warft. The Frisere ‘Frisians’ in the very southwest of Denmark use the words værft or varft.
The word werf, and all the variants mentioned, indicates a mound or a landing. Werf or Warft would, therefore, actually be a more appropriate terms for a dwelling mound than the word terp. The word terp is related to the word torp (Danish), doarp (Mid-Frisian) or dorp (Dutch). However, it is terp that found its way into the English language, and therefore we settle the discussion this way. For a full overview of all the nearly thirty (30!) different names that exist for terp check the atlas ‘De Bosatlas van de Wadden,’ p 32-33, published by Noordhoff Atlasproducties (2018).
PS 1: On behalf of all the Frisians we do apologize for the global warming effects of their dung culture!
PS 2: Two more terps have been built in the Netherlands recently, and both in the municipality of The Hague. Both as monuments, and not meant for a setteltment platform. These are the Terp of Vink, and the terp at the town of Leidschenveen. Read our post Terp or wierde?. Even more exotic, in ’30s of the twentieth century, the dairy farm Friesche Terp was set up in Pengalengan, near Bandung in the Dutch-Indies, present-day Indonesia.
PS 3: In province Friesland, the inhabitants of village Blije set up the project Terp van de Toekomst ‘terp of the future’ and want to build a terp at the tidal marshland again, north of the village Blije.
PS 4: You can be giggly about the practice of digging ditches and marking your territory with pottery and bones of your ancestors, but it is actually the foundation of modern Western society. Ditches, banks, walls, hedges and so on, embodied control over resources through agricultural property rights. They gave among others expression to social relationships, status and communal identity. Yes, identity originally was determined by the land the group possessed, and not by genes and origin (Oosthuizen, 2019).
The practices above have been confirmed by archaeologists; Nieuwhof, A., Eight human skulls in a dung heap and more. Ritual practice in the terp region of northern Netherlands 600 BC-AD 300 (2015).
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