Shipwrecked people of the salt marshes

Tidal marshlands and Frisians. A dual entity. The Chauci and the Frisians (Frisii) had learned to adapt to this unprotected, hospitable salty environment. A vast area of treeless, tidal marshlands. No rocks, no wood, not much sweet water, and frequently flooded by the sea. But a place where these tribes prospered nonetheless at the time the ‘sophisticated and civilized’ Romans arrived around the year of Christ. The way the Chauci and the Frisians survived? They lived on terps, meaning artificial settlement mounds, and would continue to do so, to this very day.

It was Roman soldier Plinius, or Pliny, the Elder who described this terp culture in his Naturalis historia, written in the first century. Plinius was stationed for some years in the area between the river Ems and the river Weser, which was the land of the Chauci. Back then, the terp region encompassed the area what’s today more or less region Ostfriesland in Germany combined with provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands. Generally the Chauci are situated in region Ostfriesland and possibly in parts of province Groningen too. The Frisians were the neighbouring tribe living to the west of the Chauci, more or less provinces Friesland and Noord Holland. An area the Romans failed to conquer long-term, north of the limes along the river Rhine.

Below what Plinius the Elder wrote about the Chauci, about the terp culture of the Wadden Sea.

Errata in Plinius’ travel journal

There’re some errors in the account of Plinius, however.

The mire must have been cow dung. Cow dung can be dried and then used as fuel. This dung-drying thing continued to be practiced in the terp region of Nordfriesland in northern Germany even after the Second World War, where terps, locally known as warft, have their protective function to this day. Another option might be that Plinius actually meant peat instead of mire. But for the peatlands, you’re already a bit more inland away from the terps and the salt marshes.

Furthermore, the report that the Chauci (and the Frisii) didn’t have cattle is incorrect. To the contrary. Peoples dwelling on the tidal marshlands were livestock farmers par excellence, both cattle and sheep. Livestock husbandry was even one of the primary foundations of their economy (Siegmüller 2022). And from the Romans they inherited among other chickens and cats too. Archaeological research has confirmed the cow and sheep farming without any doubt. No explanation as to why Plinius missed this ‘little detail’, or wanted to miss this detail. Some argue that Plinius described a situation shortly after a storm flood (Dirks 2023).

The pits filled with rain water mentioned by Plinius, probably collected from the house roofs, might refer to what is known in region Nordfriesland as a feeting and feith, or in province Friesland as dobbe, and in province Groningen as a dob. Check our post Groove is in the Hearth too, about collecting rain water with grooves at terps, and all the superstitious and pagan practices that were part of it. Dobbes are now mainly used on the tidal marshlands for sweet water supply for livestock.

Not only in region Nordfriesland the terp culture made in into the twentieth century. On former Kampereiland ‘Kampen Island’ in the delta of the river IJssel, mound refuges exist too. Locally, terps on Kampereiland are called a huisbelt ‘house heap’ or a pol ‘clump’. Alone at Kampereiland there’re about a hundred terps. The islands within the delta were inhabited from mid fourteenth century. Only after the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, when the Zuiderzee ‘southern sea’ was dammed, terps became useless. Sweet water in this salty environment was supplied with so-called norton wells (after James Lee Norton), or Abyssinian wells. These tube wells, a nineteenth-century invention, were bored into the underground on livestock refuge mounds.

There’s another first-century account about the people living in the coastal zone of the North Sea, namely that of Nicolaus of Damascus. He describes that the Celts -note that the Romans initially made no distinction between Germanics and Celts)- who live near the sea, consider it a disgrace to flee when the walls or their houses crumble. When flood penetrates the land, they confront it armed, until they’re being dragged into the sea. If they would flee, people might accuse them of being afraid of death (Looienga, et al 2017).

Note 1 – Although Plinius spoke of the Chauci and the Frisians as inferiors, they were the tribes that started raiding and pillaging from the second century onward the coasts of western Netherlands, the English Channel, of East England, of Brittany, and way way beyond. In the third century it had reached such proportion that it gave the Romans more than a headache. Meanwhile, a new North Sea Germanic culture was being shaped. Read more in our post It all began with piracy.

Note 2 – The original journal of Pliny:

Diximus et in oriente quidem iuxta oceanum complures ea in necessitate gentes. sunt vero et in septentrione visae nobis Chaucorum, qui maiores minoresque appellantur. vasto ibi meatu bis dierum noctiumque singularum intervallis effusus in inmensum agitur oceanus, operiens aeternam rerum naturae controversiam dubiamque terrae [sit] an partem manibus ad experimenta altissima aestus, casis ita inpositis navigantibus similes, cum integant aquae circumdata, naufragis vero, cum recesserint, fugientes que cum mari pistes circa tuguria venantur. non pecudem his habere, non latte ali, ut finitissimis, ne cum feris quidem dimicare contingit omni procul abacto frutice. ulva et palustri iunco funes nectunt ad praetexenda piscibus retia captumque manibus lutum ventis magis quam sole siccantes terra cibos et rigentia septentrione viscera sua urunt. potus non nisi ex imbre servato scrobibus in vestibulo domus. et haec genres, si vincantur hodie a populo Romano, servire se dicunt! ita est profecto: multis fortuna parcit in poenam.

Further reading

  • Bank, J. & Bosscher, D., Omringd door water. De geschiedenis van de 25 Nederlandse eilanden (2021)
  • Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Repsonse (2019)
  • Dirks, C.H., Geschichte Ostfrieslands. Von der Freiheit der Friesen bis zu Deutschlands witzigstem Otto (2023)
  • Gelder, van J. et al, Plinius. De wereld. Naturalis historia (2004)
  • Guðmundsdóttir, L.,  Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD) (2021)
  • Hagen, J., Een ‘armzalig’ volk bouwt terpen en dijken (2021)
  • Hines, J. & IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L. (ed), Frisians of the Early Middle Ages (2021)
  • Loveluck, C. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600–1000 (2006)
  • Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
  • Nedelius, S., Early Germanic Dialects – Old Frisian (2019)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement (2020)
  • Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Panorama Landschap – IJsseldelta (website)
  • Siegmüller, A., Dwelling mounds and their environment. The use of resources in the Roman Iron Age (2022)

Featured images by Jouke Nijman, Samson J. Goetze and Ulco Glimmerveen.

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