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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

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 or Fresones) had learned to adapt to this unprotected, hospitable salty environment. A vast area of treeless, tidal marshlands. No rocks, no wood, not much sweet water, and frequently flooded by the sea. But a place where these tribes prospered nonetheless at the time the 'sophisticated and civilized' Romans arrived around the year of Christ. The way the Chauci and the Frisians survived? They lived on terps, meaning artificial settlement mounds, and would continue to do so, to this very day.

It was 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's today more or less region Ostfriesland in Germany combined with provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands. Terps existed even further east along the banks of the River Weser, of which archaeological research of the terps of Fallward and Feddersen are proof. Generally the Chauci tribe is situated in region Ostfriesland and possibly in eastern parts of the province of Groningen too. The Frisians were the neighbouring tribe living to the west of the Chauci, more or less provinces Friesland and Noord Holland above the River IJ. An area the Romans failed to conquer long-term, 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

There are some errors in the account of Plinius, however.

The mire must have been cow dung. Cow dung can be dried and then used as fuel. This dung-drying thing continued to be practiced in the terp region of Nordfriesland in northern Germany even after the Second World War, where terps, locally known as Warft, have their protective function to this day. Another option might be that Plinius actually meant peat instead of mire. But for the peatlands, you're already a bit more inland away from the terps and the salt marshes.

Furthermore, the report that the Chauci (and the Frisii) didn't have cattle is incorrect. To the contrary. Peoples dwelling on the tidal marshlands were livestock farmers par excellence, both cattle and sheep. Livestock husbandry was even one of the primary foundations of their economy (Nieuwhof 2018, Siegmüller 2022). And from the Romans they inherited among other chickens and cats too. Archaeological research has confirmed the cow and sheep farming without any doubt. No explanation as to why Plinius missed this 'little detail', or wanted to miss this detail. Some argue that Plinius described a situation shortly after a storm flood (Dirks 2023). If only Plinius had known, that the Friesians cows would dominate dairy production worldwide in modern history; read our post Golden Calves, or bursting udders on bony legs.

The pits filled with rain water mentioned by Plinius, probably collected from the house roofs, might refer to what is known in region Nordfriesland as a feeting and feith, or in province Friesland as dobbe, and in province Groningen as a dob. 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. Dobbes are now mainly used on the tidal marshlands for sweet water supply for livestock.

Not only in region Nordfriesland the terp culture made in into the twentieth century. On former Kampereiland 'Kampen Island' in the delta of the River IJssel, mound refuges exist too. Locally, terps on Kampereiland are called a huisbelt 'house heap' or a pol 'clump'. Alone at Kampereiland there're about a hundred terps. The islands within the delta were inhabited from mid fourteenth century. Only after the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, when the Zuiderzee 'southern sea' was dammed, terps became useless. Sweet water in this salty environment was supplied with so-called norton wells (after James Lee Norton), or Abyssinian wells. These tube wells, a nineteenth-century invention, were bored into the underground on livestock refuge mounds.

There's 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're being dragged into the sea. If they would flee, people might accuse them of being afraid of death (Looienga et al 2017).


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.

In addition, during the Migration period, the terp dwellers of the Elbe-Weser triangle, the Old Saxons, would fan out over much of the southern coastal zone of the North Sea. They repopulated the Frisian marshlands and, moreover, created the Anglo-Saxon culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture had a profound impact on the history of the world. If one considers Region Holland and Westfriesland as evolved from partly Frisian origin, it would also have a major impact on the history of the world during the Early Modern Period of the Dutch Republic. If interested who the Old Saxons of the Elbe-Weser triangle were, read our blog post The Deer Hunter of Fallward, and his Throne of the Marsh.

Note 2 - The original journal of Pliny

Diximus et in oriente quidem iuxta oceanum complures ea in necessitate gentes. sunt vero et in septentrione visae nobis Chaucorum, qui maiores minoresque appellantur. vasto ibi meatu bis dierum noctiumque singularum intervallis effusus in inmensum agitur oceanus, operiens aeternam rerum naturae controversiam dubiamque terrae [sit] an partem manibus ad experimenta altissima aestus, casis ita inpositis navigantibus similes, cum integant aquae circumdata, naufragis vero, cum recesserint, fugientes que cum mari pistes circa tuguria venantur. non pecudem his habere, non latte ali, ut finitissimis, ne cum feris quidem dimicare contingit omni procul abacto frutice. ulva et palustri iunco funes nectunt ad praetexenda piscibus retia captumque manibus lutum ventis magis quam sole siccantes terra cibos et rigentia septentrione viscera sua urunt. potus non nisi ex imbre servato scrobibus in vestibulo domus. et haec genres, si vincantur hodie a populo Romano, servire se dicunt! ita est profecto: multis fortuna parcit in poenam.

Note 3 - Featured images by Jouke Nijman, Samson J. Goetze and Ulco Glimmerveen.

Suggested music

Les Misérables, Do You Hear the People Sing? (1980)

Blondie, The Tide Is High (1980)

Further reading

Bank, J. & Bosscher, D., Omringd door water. De geschiedenis van de 25 Nederlandse eilanden (2021)

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

Dirks, C.H., Geschichte Ostfrieslands. Von der Freiheit der Friesen bis zu Deutschlands witzigstem Otto (2023)

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

Guðmundsdóttir, L., Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD) (2021)

Hagen, J., Een 'armzalig' volk bouwt terpen en dijken (2021)

Hines, J. & IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L. (eds.), Frisians of the Early Middle Ages (2021)

Historiek, “Een meelijwekkend volk” – Plinius over Friezen (2023)

Lasance, A. (transl.), Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)

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., Dagelijks leven op terpen en wierden (2018)

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

Nijdam, J.A., ‘De gemaskerde Wizo: vervalsing, mystificatie of pastiche?’. Bespreking van: Wizo van Vlaanderen, Itinerarium Fresiae (2012)

Popkema, A.T., Jammerdearlik folk oan natoer har swetten (2023)

Schepers, M., Cancelling Plinius? Reflecties op de rol van het misera gens-citaat in de geschiedschrijving van het terpengebied (2023)

Siegmüller, A., Dwelling mounds and their environment. The use of resources in the Roman Iron Age (2022)

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