• Hans Faber

Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps

Here 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, because we observe that terp building is on the rise again, but happens often in an amateurish way.

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, former West Frisia. 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 in region Overdiepse Polder in province Noord Brabant in the Netherlands. It is part of the Delta Plan after serious flooding caused by the big rivers Rhine and Meuse a decade 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.

Let’s start. Be prepared, it is literally a lot of bullshit!

A: Location

If you want to know where 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 dyke breaks and to be prepared. These are the spots where this manual comes in handy. The site is only in Dutch and not understandable for expats living in the Netherlands. The number of expats is between 40,000 and 75,000 persons and mostly living in the low-laying coastal zone of Noord Holland and Zuid Holland.

B: Materials

  1. eight (or more) skulls of ancestors

  2. ten kilogram cattle meat with bones

  3. one heirloom piece

  4. three cooking pans (not too small)

  5. drill

  6. ten kilogram pottery

  7. hammer

  8. eight hundred cubic meter cow dung (depending on your ambitions)

  9. shovel

  10. stack of firewood

  11. box fire matches

  12. sea shells (enough to cover the terp surface)

C: Instructions

Best time to erect a terp is in early summer. You don't want to work with dung in the heavy spring, autumn and winter rains. Also, for the containers (see step 7) to drain takes ages. Last but not least, making fires (see steps 8 and 9) in these rains is nearly impossible.

Terp arial view
  1. 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 is more related to the maintenance of a house and not a terp.

  2. Place the meat with bones near the 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 don't 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.

  3. 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's up to you whether or not you ask permission from your in-laws.

  4. 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's highly infectious. Some mix with sheep dung isn't such a problem. But where it comes down to is that you need loads and loads of dung. In this respect not much has changed over the last 2,500 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 dykes emerged and the sea was banned, needed as fertilizer. And its insulating effects are now a threat for the climate.

  5. 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 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 AD list of heathen practices of the Frisians and the Saxons.

  6. Wait until dusk.

  7. 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. But the 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 above the skulls, meat and heirloom piece.

  8. 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 isn't too dry to prevent the terp from catching fire. Dried dung is flammable. And we are not in North Frisia during biikin.

  9. 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.

  10. Collect the pottery once the liquid is drained. It can be all sorts of pottery. If you're tired of the Delft Blue wall tiles; use those. But roof tiles, your neighbor's china etc, 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Lastly, cover the surface of the new terp with a thick layer of sea shells to have a solid and less smelling floor.

Have a safe and pleasant stay on your terp!


Understanding Terps

First of all, we must make clear that the terps we dealt with in this post, 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. Wheter that is at the tidal salt marshes near the sea, in the peat soils adjacent to the salt marshes or along rivers and at river mouths. Exactly the habitat of broader Frisia. It can be a mound for a single house, or for a small settlement.

Therefore, besides the terps of the salt marshes, this definition includes the hundreds of terps founds in the peat soils of modern province Holland, especially in region Waterland, but also the town terps of places like Monnickendam and, yes, Amsterdam. The 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 more slowly. It flows, and over the centuries it levels with its surroundings. The terps made of clay and dung, remained.

And to complicate things even 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.

‘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 old shire Westergo of province Friesland. From there, terps spread eastward into Germany. The northernmost terp is that of Misthusum in southern Denmark. It has been abandoned in the year 1814, though.

Other 'salt-water terps' can be found elsewhere too, i.e. not along the Wadden Sea coast. For example more to the south in province Noord Holland, like the terps of Avendorp, Eenigenburg and Hemkewerf near the town of Schagen. Further south, in the inter-tidal Zwin Region in Belgium, you can find them at the village of Leffinge, the village of Bredene and the house platform at Oude Werf in Bredene. The terp at Bredene being the most southern terp as well. Other terps in the Zwin region are being suspected at Knokke, Koudekerke, Oostkerke, Ramskapelle and Westkapelle. Also the toponyms Lockwierde, Houtwerf, Outvaarts Werf, Bogaerts Werf, Zuidwerf, Stekels Werf, Boenzacs Werf, Blevins Werf, Barezeles Werf, Molenwerf, Monnikewerve, Wallewerve, and Weerdenwal, all might refer to terps in this region. Much research still has to be done in the Zwin Region.

Also on the (former) Islands of Marken and Schokland, in the (also former) Zuiderzee ‘Southern Sea’. Marken still is, more or less, an island, whilst Schokland is now part of the reclaimed land or polder 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.

‘Sweet terps’, in connection with rivers and peat soils, existed in the thousands in the Netherlands already (Besteman et al, 1992). They can be can be found at the mouth of the river IJssel, like the one at the hamlet Kampereiland, along the Frieseweg ‘Frisian road’. But also in the peat soils of modern province Holland, especially in region Waterland, and at the town terps of places like Monnickendam and, yes, Amsterdam. These terps of the (former) peat soils were, as said, mainly house platforms, and as explained too, they became invisible and slowly sank into the soil.

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 the author 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 from you. 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 land, and especially so many lives.

When talking about numbers, the estimation is about 500 terps in the (former) marshlands of provinces Friesland. We leave the house platform aside with this number. But numbers vary. During a stock-take, including house platforms, in 1905 the number was 574 terps in province Friesland, in 1944 it were 910. And to be more precise, we should talk about ca. 500 ‘terp remains’ since nearly all terps have been commercially exploited and excavated. The only terps you can see in province Friesland, are remains of a much more impressive terp or those fully covered with houses, church and farms.

Around the year 1900, terps in the Netherlands (less in Germany) were being excavated massively for commercial purposes. The rich terp soil 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 excavation terp soil stopped, simply because no terps were left to exploit. Because of these excavations, many artifacts have been found. But, at the same time, much historical data has been lost, and small artifacts are scattered all over the country.

Although most (marshland) 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, namelythose in Kreis Nordfriesland in Germany. 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 Halligen (or halligs), which are the 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. And, 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- in the Netherlands. 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 actually be a more appropriate terms for a dwelling mound than the word terp. The word terp meaning village originally and 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 heating effects of our dung culture.

PS 2: There have been two more terps been built in the Netherlands recently, and both in the municipality of The Hague. Both as monuments and not meant for a living platform. These are the Terp of Vink and the terp at the town of Leidschenveen. Read our blog post Terp or Wierde?. But 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 terp 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's 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. Read also: Oosthuizen, S., The Emergence of the English (2019).

Further reading

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).

But read also:

Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M. & Heidinga, H.A., Graven naar Friese koningen. De opgravingen in Wijnaldum (1992)

Dijkstra, M.F.P, Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Frankfurt, H.G., On Bullshit (1986)

Halbertsma, H., Terpen tussen Vlie en Eems. Een geografisch-historische benadering (1963)

Knol, E., Hogebeintum aan snee (2019)

Nieuwhof, A., Bakker, M., Knol, E., Langen, de G.J., Nicolay, J.A.W., Postma, D., Schepers, M., Varwijk, T.W., Vos, P.C., Adapting to the sea: Human habitation in the coastal area of the northern Netherlands before medieval dike building (2019)

Nicolay, N. & Langen, de G. (red), Graven aan de voet van de Achlumer dorpsterp (2015)

Nieuwhof, A., De lege vierde eeuw (2016)

Nieuwhof, A., Scherven brengen geluk. Aanwijzingen voor opzettelijk gebroken aardewerk (2018)

Popta, van Y. & Aaldersberg, G., Onbekend, maar niet onbemind: terpen en terponderzoek in de Noordoostpolder (2016)

Roessingh, W., Een archeologische opgraving op 'Het Torp' (2018)

Zwaenepoel, A. & Vandamme, D., Herder, schapen en natuurbeheer in de Zwinstreek (2016)