Shipwrecked people of the salt marshes

Tidal marshlands and the Frisians are a dual entity. The Chauci and the Frisii (Frisians) had learned to adapt to this unprotective, hospitable salty environment. A vast area of treelees, tidal marshlands, frequently flooded by the sea, but where they nonetheless prospered at the time the civilized Romans arrived around the year of Christ. People lived on terps, i.e. artificial settlement mounds, and would continue to do so till this very day.

It was the 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 rivers Ems and Weser, the land of the Chauci. Then, the terp region encompassed the area what is today region Ostfriesland in Germany, and provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands. The Chauci generally are situated in region Ostfriesland and possibly part of province Groningen too. The Frisii were the neighboring tribe living west of the Chauci, more or less provinces Friesland and Noord Holland.

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

“We have discussed that at least in the east there are several peoples along the coast of the ocean who have to live without trees and shrubs. And we have also seen such peoples in the north, namely the Chauci, both the Great Chauci and the Smaller Chauci. Twice a day over an immeasurable distance the ocean comes up with enormous amounts of water, and covers an area eternally disputed by nature, and of which it is unclear whether it belongs to the mainland or is part of the sea.

There, this poor people occupy high dwelling mounds or dams that they single-handedly have raised to the highest water level they experienced. With their huts they have built on it, they look like sailors when water covers the surrounding land. But they look like shipwrecked when the water has withdrawn, and they hunt around their huts for fish that flee with the sea.

Plinus the Elder

They cannot keep cattle and feed on milk like neighboring peoples. And, because no scrub grows in the wider area, it is impossible for them to fight with wild animals. From reed and bulrush, they weave rope to tie fishing nets. They collect mire by hand that they let it dry through the wind, more than through the sun. With this peat they heat their food and their bodies churned by the northern wind. They only drink rainwater, which they keep in pits at the entrances of their house.

And these peoples speak of slavery when they are conquered by the Roman people today! That is indeed how it goes: fate leaves many people alive to punish them.”

Some remarks on Plinius’ travel diary.

The mire must have been cow dung. Cow dung can be dried and then used as fuel. This was practiced in the terp region of Nordfriesland in northern Germany, where terps still have their protective function, after the Second World War still. The other option is, Plinius actually meant peat instead of mire, but then you are already a bit more inland away from the terps.

Furthermore, that the Chauci (and the Frisii) did not have cattle is incorrect. To the contrary. The peoples of the tidal marshlands were livestock farmers par excellence. Archaeological research has confirmed this without any doubt. No explanation as to why Plinius missed this ‘detail’, or wanted to miss this detail. 

The pits filled with rain water mentioned by Plinius, probably collected from the roofs, might refer to what is known in Nordfriesland as a Fething or in province Friesland as a dobbe. Check out our blog 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. Fethings and dobbes are now mainly used at the tidal marshlands for the sweet water supply for cattle.

There is 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 Ocean, consider it a disgrace to flee when the walls or their houses crumble. When flood penetrates the land, they confront it armed, until they are being dragged into the sea. If they would flee, people might accuse them of being afraid of death.

Note: featured images by Jouke Nijman, Samson J. Goetze and Ulco Glimmerveen

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Gelder, van J. et al, Plinius. De wereld. Naturalis historia (2004)
  • Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement (2020)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: