• 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 house 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, and it happens often in an amateurish way. In doing so, 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, 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 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 residents 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, we 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 them where them 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!

The ritual 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).


Between Leffinge-Oude Werf (BE) and Misthusum (DK):

Understanding Terps

terps at the Hallig-islands, Nordfriesland

Definitions and terp varieties

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 on the tidal marshlands bordering the sea, on the peatlands adjacent to the salt marshes, or along rivers and at river mouths. Exactly the habitats of broader historic Frisia. Terps can be a mound to support a single house, a platform, or a mound to support a small settlement.

Therefore, besides terps built on salt marshes or ‘salt-water terps’, this definition also includes the hundreds of terps found in the peat lands of modern province Noord Holland, especially in the region Waterland, and also the town-terps of settlements like Monnickendam and Amsterdam. These so-called ‘sweet-water terps’, in connection with rivers and peat lands, existed in the thousands in the Netherlands (Besteman, et al 1992).

‘Sweet-water terps’ of the (former) peatlands were mainly house platforms. Furthermore, the terps of the peatlands all have become invisible for the eye. The reason for it is, that peat behaves like water. It flows too, only in slow motion. Over centuries it levels with its surroundings. Terps made of clay and dung on the tidal marshlands, however, remained visible.

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 River IJssel, like the ones at the hamlet of Kampereiland along the Frieseweg ‘Frisian road’ and at Reeve, also belong to this fluid category.

‘Salt-water 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 region Westergo in province Friesland. From here, terps spread eastward into Germany. The northernmost terp is that of Misthusum in the southwest of Jutland. It regrettably has been abandoned in the year 1814.

Because people lived on terps on the tidal marshlands before high dikes existed, the sea could flow out over a vast area of marshland during storm floods. 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 the hamlet of Hogebeintum, namely almost +9 MOD. Why the people of Hogebeintum built such a high terp in the Middle Ages when +4 meters was already enough, we do not know. Was it perhaps to show off? “Look us having a big terp!” Or were simply very anxious people? Other famous terps are those of Feddersen in Landkreis Cuxhaven and Ezinge in province Groningen. The latter is also nicknamed ‘Pompeii of the North’.

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 Flanders in Belgium, you can find them at the village of Leffinge, the village of Bredene, and at Oude Werf near Leffinge. The terp of Oude Werf being the most southern terp as well. Other terps in the Zwin region in Flanders 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, Weerdenwal, and many many more, all might refer to terps. Much archaeological research still has to be done in Flanders and the Zwin region. Check also our post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders to find more information about the early-medieval Flemish-Frisian terp habitation in Flanders.

Also, on (former) Islands of Marken and Schokland in the (former) Zuiderzee ‘southern sea’ you can find terps. Island Marken still is, more or less, an island-Hallig, whilst Schokland is now part of the embanked land called Noordoostpolder. Even underneath the town of Den Helder in the upper north of province Noord Holland, lies an old ‘salt-water terp’ waiting for its revenche, named Het Torp.

Recently (2019) the federation Broekpolder reconstructed the so-called Rotta house (Rottahuis) with a platform of the year 1015 at the town of Vlaardingen, province Zuid Holland, then still called West Frisia. It illustrates how people lived in the river delta of the River Meuse.

Living entity and memory

Some more words concerning 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, not without emotion:

“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 Nordfries that a Hallig (see below) is an island. He will correct you in a grumpy voice, and say it is not an island. Then he will say “moin” to you, and will walk -or swim- away. He is right in the way that Halligs used to be part of a vast salt marsh area which largely was lost to the sea in the course of the High Middle Ages. Too fresh in the memory in the psyche of the Nordfriesen 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.

Statistics and money

When talking about numbers, the estimation is about 500 terps in the (former) tidal marshlands of province 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 of terps amounted 574 in province Friesland, and in 1944 the number amounted 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, and in province Groningen 587 of which 268 have 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 provinces Friesland and Groningen, are the remains of once much more impressive terps, or those which 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 the Low Countries, was sold as fertilization for 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 back then. In 1920, the soil even cost 110 cents per tonne. In the ’40s commercial quarrying of terp soil stopped, Not because of the Second World War started. No, 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 (provenance) data has been lost, and small artifacts are scattered all over the country.

Although most ‘salt-water terps’ have lost their protective function after land had been secured by big-dike building from around the start of the eleventh century, there is one big exception, namely those in 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 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, after a thousand years, the terps on the Halligs of Nordfriesland are being raised once again. To brace themselves for climate change, global warming and rising sea levels.

Terp, wierde, Wurt, Warf etc

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 and Flanders the word werve is being used, although the toponym wi(e)rde or weerde and stelle also exist. The word werve in province Zeeland mainly because people there prefer to put an e behind every single word they pronounce. In province Groningen, the word wierde is always 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 Jutland use the words værft or varft.

The Old-Frisian word hwarf and the current word werf and all the variants aforementioned, 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 and Flemish language, and therefore we settle the discussion this way. Majority rules.

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). They failed to list one in this list, namely vliedberg ‘flee mountain’, as (also) being used in Flanders and province Zeeland. The word vliedberg can donate a mound for cattle the flee to during floods, it can be a remnant of motte-and-bailey castle, or a terp proper.

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. It would be the first terp build on the salt marsh after more than a thousand years.

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).

Suggested music

Reboelje, Eilân yn de see (1999)

Further reading

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

Deckers, P., Ervynck, A. & Tys, D., De vroegmiddeleeuwse bewoning van de kustvlakte: de terpsite Leffinge-Oude Werf (2012)

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)

Doorn, van F., De Friezen. Een geschiedenis (2021)

Ervynck, A., Deckers, P., Lentacker, A., Tys, D. & Neer, van M., ‘Leffinge-Oude Werf’: the first archaeozoological collection from a terp settlement in coastal Flanders (2012)

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

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

Knol, E., Hogebeintum aan snee (2019)

Knol, E., et al, The medieval cemetry of Oosterbeintum (Friesland) (1996)

Mann, C.C., 1491. New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2006)

Meier, D., Die Halligen. In Vergangenheit und Gegenwert (2020)

Nieuwhof, A., 650 Terpen langs de Noordzee (2018)

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)

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., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement. Volume 1: Excavation – Environment and Economy – Catalogue of Plans and Finds (2020)

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

Oosthuizen, S., The emergence of the English (2019)

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., Herders, schapen en natuurbeheer in de Zwinstreek (2016)