Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps
Updated: Jun 7
Here is your manual for enlarging or creating your own terp, your artificial dwelling mound or platform. Despite terps are being made for more than 2,600 years this manual is the first of its kind.
Although most terps were built in the period 650 BC - AD 1050 it is still a current solution. Take for example the town of Wieringerwerf in the reclaimed land Wieringermeerpolder in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands, former West Frisia. It was built in '30s last century. The terp of Wieringerwerf was even of service at the end of World War II when the dykes of the Wieringermeer Polder were destroyed. Read our blog post about this catastrophe. The most recent terps were built in region Overdiepse Polder along the river Meuse 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.
But it troubled the Nordfriesen (North-Frisians), the Ostfriesen (East-Frisians) in Germany, and the Mid-Frisians in province Friesland in the Netherlands deeply that the folks of province Noord Brabant, and of Noord Holland already before, apparently do not obey all necessary procedures. In time this might have serious consequences for the safety and health of people that 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! Therefore, on behalf of all Frisians, we apologize for the global warming effect of our cow dung culture.
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 merely 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. 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 do not want to work with dung in the heavy spring, autumn and winter rains. Also, for the containers (see step 7 below) to drain takes 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 is more related to the maintenance of a house and not a terp.
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 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 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. Some mix with sheep dung is not 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.
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 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. 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.
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 terp from catching fire. Dried dung is flammable. And we are not in North Frisia during biikin.
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 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.
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.
Have a safe and pleasant stay on your terp!
Terps, or artificial settlement mounds, can be found in 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 eastwards into northern Germany. The latest phase of expansion of the terp culture was in High Middle Ages in Nordfriesland, Germany.
But terps can be found more to the south too. For example in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands, like Avendorp, Eenigenburg and Hemkewerf near the town of Schagen. Even underneath the town of Den Helder in the north of province Noord Holland lies an old terp waiting for its revenche, named Het Torp. Another groep of terps in province Noord Holland kan be found on the island Marken, namely Moeniswerf, Grotewerf, Rozewerf and Wittewerf. Other terps can be found in province Overijssel at the mouth of the river IJssel like the one at the hamlet Kampereiland (along the Frieseweg 'Frisian road'), and on the former Island of Schokland in the also former Zuiderzee or Southern Sea, today part of the reclaimed land Noordoostpolder.
As said in the Manual above, in the Overdiepse polder new terps have been built along the river Meuse. Also, in the central river area, along the river Merwede in the Noordwaardpolder part of National Park De Biesbosch area, house platforms exist with a farmstead on it. The Noordwaardpolder is, like the Overdiepse polder, located in province Noord Brabant too.
Recently in 2019, the federation Broekpolder reconstructed the so-called Rotta house (Rottahuis) with platform of AD 1015 at Vlaardingen, province Zuid Holland (then West Frisia). It illustrates how the people lived at the river delta of the Meuse in the Middle Ages.
If you think terps are a typical Dutch and German thing, know there are terps in the towns of Bredene en Leffinge near Oostende in Belgium too.
Although most terps have lost their protective function after land has been secured by dyke-building from around the start of the eleventh century, there is one big exception, namely Kreis Nordfriesland in Germany. Here one can still witness people living on terps within the full dynamics of the sea, unproteced by dykes. These are the so-called Halligen (or halligs), which are the salt-marsh 'islands' with one or a few terps built on it. Sometimes supporting only one farm or house, sometimes supporting a small village. For more information about the Halligen read also our blog post How a town drowned overnight. And currently, the terps are being raised to brace themselves for the climate changes and rising sea levels.
What's in the name?
Notice that we use the word terp as used in province Friesland -and recently in province Noord Brabant too- in the Netherlands. People in province Noord Holland use the word werf. In province Zeeland the word werve is being used, but mainly because people there prefer to put an e behind every single word they pronounce. In region Ommelanden of province Groningen the word wierde is mainly being used. Official German is Wurt but the Ostfriesen and the Nordfriesen use mainly respectively Warf and Warft. The Frisere 'Frisians' in the very southeast Denmark use the words værft or varft.
The word Werf, and all the variants mentioned, indicates a mound or a landing. It would actually be a more appropriate term for a dwelling mound than the word terp. The word terp meaning village 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 different names that exist for 'terp' check the atlas 'De Bosatlas van de Wadden,' page 32-33, published by Noordhoff Atlasproducties (2018).
Furthermore, there is 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 be called a terp. As a Mid-Frisian farmer living on a house-terp near the village Sexbierum (pronounced as 'sex-beer-rum') in province Friesland explained the author recently: "It's 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 an island North-Frisian that a Hallig is an island. He will correct you, say it is not an island, say in a mopey voice "moin" to you and will walk or swim 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 in 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.
After reading this manual you also get a feeling where all these emotions come from.
PS 1: 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 The terp that should have been a 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 2: 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 3: 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.
PS 4: Around AD 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 50 cent (guilders) per tonne, which was a lot of money. 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.
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