• Hans Faber

The shipwrecked people of the salt marshes

artistic impression of salt marsh culture

Tidal marshlands and Frisians, a dual entity. The Chauci and the Frisians (Frisii) had learned to adapt to this unprotective, hospitable salty environment. A vast area of treelees, tidal marshlands. No rocks, no wood, not much sweet water, and frequently flooded by the sea. But where these tribes nonetheless prospered at the time the civilized Romans arrived around the year of Christ. The way the Chauci and the Frisians survived? They 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 the River Ems and the River Weser, which was the land of the Chauci. Back 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 in parts of province Groningen too. The Frisians were the neighboring tribe living west of the Chauci, more or less provinces Friesland and Noord Holland. An area the Romans failed to conquer, 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.

“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 But they look like shipwrecked when the water has withdrawn, and they hunt around their huts for fish that flee with the sea.

Plinius the Elder
Plinius or Pliny 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 [hunt for] 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.”

Errata in Plinius’ travel journal

The mire must have been cow dung. Cow dung can be dried and then used as fuel. This continued to be practiced in the terp region of Nordfriesland in northern Germany, where terps, locally known as warft, still have their protective function, even after the Second World War. Another option might be that Plinius actually meant peat instead of mire. But for the peatlands 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, cattle and sheep. And from the Romans they inherited among other chickens and cats too. 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 region Nordfriesland as a Fething or in province Friesland as a dobbe. 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. Fethings and dobbes are now mainly used at the tidal marshlands for sweet water supply for livestock.

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 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 are being dragged into the sea. If they would flee, people might accuse them of being afraid of death.

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

Further reading:

Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Repsonse (2019)

Gelder, van J. et al, Plinius. De wereld. Naturalis historia (2004)

Guðmundsdóttir, L., Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD) (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)

Nieuwhof, A., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement (2020)