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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

The Killing Fields, of the Celts

About 2,000 years ago, a tragedy unfolded. A sixteen-year-old girl, who suffered from scoliosis during her young life, was killed. Her red hair was shaved off on one side, she was stabbed at the base of her neck on the right shoulder, and strangled with a woollen rope. The rope was still around her neck. Like a true Princess Cunera. After this, she was placed in the bog. It all happened near the Celtic fields in what was then the territory of the Frisians, near the current village of Yde in the province of Drenthe. It wasn't investigative journalism that brought this crime to light, but two peat cutters who found her in 1897. In this post, we'll investigate this cold case and delve deeper into the world of early Frisians.

When in 1897, two poor peat cutters found the mummy of a red-haired girl in the Bourtange Moor, they initially thought it was the Devil. In panic, the men ran away from her. For several days, the body was left lying unprotected. But then the villagers returned to the find and continued where their ancient predecessors had left off, and resumed to mistreat her. They removed many of her teeth and pulled out her hair as well.

The Girl of Yde, as the mummy is commonly known, was brought to life again by medical artist Richard Neave in 1992. He reconstructed her face. She's dated between 54 BC and AD 128. Other details of the girl are that she was only about 1.40 meters tall and wore a woollen cloak. Her scoliosis was serious, and she was probably a cripple. The Girl of Yde is exhibited in the Drents Museum.

Girl of Yde

After the reason behind her killing, one can only guess. Most scholars assume it was a sacrifice. Because of her look of peace, they even suggest she was drugged beforehand. Others say she might have been punished just as well. Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56-120) wrote about the Celtic-Germanic people of the north that those who disgraced their bodies will be drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wicker (Coulthard 2020). Another theory is that the woollen rope was, in fact, a harmless shawl. Probably, we'll never know how she was killed and why.

Good to know is that her find isn't unique. Everywhere in wet and rainy north-western Europe where peatlands exist or existed, since most have been commercially quarried, bog bodies have been found. Think of the Tollund Man and the Lindow Man. Both were strangled (as well). The Tollund man is said also to have a look of peace. One tends to think, they couldn't have all smiled at the point of death. Anyway, these north-western peatlands stretched from the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany into Denmark, and, to a lesser extent, into Sweden as well. Indeed, places where it rains a lot and the land is quite flat.

Celtic Fields

That brings us to the landscape of northern Germany and the Netherlands. During the Late Iron Age and the Early Roman Period, people lived in different types of habitats, namely: the tidal marshlands adjacent to the sea in the north, the estuaries and riverbanks along the coast, the dunes and sandy ridges along the western coast of the Netherlands, and the elevated geests bordering the peatlands further inland. The peatlands were squeezed between tidal marshlands and sandy elevations, as it were, often former ground moraine ridges. Living on elevated, sandy geest soils next to the lower-lying boggy peatlands offered good possibilities for agriculture, as we shall see further below. It's here where the so-called Celtic fields or keltischer Felder developed, also called raatakkers or Ackerterassen in respectively Dutch and German. Proximity to water might have also offered the possibility to supplement the diet with protein from fish. And it had a ritual meaning, as we will explain further below too.

Celtic Fields

We will focus on the Celtic fields of the Frisii on the Fries-Drents plateau in the north of the Netherlands. More specifically, the so-called Noordse Veld 'northern field' south of the city of Groningen. This is a fascinating area, since in the wider area not only the Girl of Yde has been found, but also burial mounds, urn fields, a small temple, and several walled enclosures annex fortified structures are located here. All dating from the Middle and Late Iron Age.

Habitation history even goes back 6,000 years with the presence of many dolmen in this region. More than 50 dolmen. That's, by the way, still younger than the wooden canoe found in the village of Pesse in the province of Drenthe, which is dated to be about 9,500 years old. Hence, it is the oldest water vessel in the world, exhibited in the Drents Museum as well (read our post Oldest Vessel of the World). As a side remark, dolmen or tumuli are called hunebedden in Dutch, which translates to 'beds of the Huns' or 'beds of huynen' with huynen meaning 'giants'. Also, the natural landscape of the wider region is unique because nowhere else in north-western Europe, or even in the world, can so many pingo ruins, i.e., ice-lens ruins, be found. These pingo ruins date back to the Ice Age. Many have turned into small fens, and according to regional superstitions, these fens have no bottom. No matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to close it.

Research at Noordse Veld started at the beginning of the twentieth century, supported by the Drents Praehistorische Vereeniging 'Drenthe Pre-historian Association'. However, already in the seventeenth century, the German historian Johan Picardt found the landscape archaeologically hopeful, and he suggested that the earthworks are part of former heathen hiding places of the Suebi tribe. The Suebi were probably the name of a confederacy of Germanic tribes living further to the east of the Netherlands in Germany. The introduction of the Suebi by Picardt is more of a grab bag selection.

Nevertheless, Celtic fields are terribly old and existed in north-western Europe, especially in the Netherlands, the Belgian Kempian plateau, north-western Germany, and southern Scandinavia. The fields generally date between 1,000 BC and AD 100 and further contributed to the deforestation of the region. The first phase of the transformation process from a natural landscape into a cultural landscape started during the Late Bronze Age, about 3,000 years ago (Van der Velde, 2017). The use and creation of Celtic fields ceased to exist more or less with the arrival of the Romans in the first century. When compared with the Celtic fields of Britain, the ones in the Netherlands have a more rectangular shape and aren't embanked with stones but with earthworks.

Recent studies revealed more insight into how the land was being worked (Arnoldussen 2017). Morphological research indicates that non-local soil was imported to the fields. This soil came from wetlands. Furthermore, this imported soil was admixed with dung and house debris. House debris is recognizable through the charcoal and the many ceramic sherds. Some even speak of a Scherbenschleier 'a veil of sherds' lying over the Celtic fields (Klamm 1993). It's suggested that imported wet soil was first used in stables to be mixed with the manure of animals. After cleaning the stables, this mixture provided good fertilizer and was carted to the fields, explaining the dung traces. These types of stables are the so-called deep litter barns common on poorer soils. Even during summer, beasts were put in the stable every night to collect the manure.

Along the coast, on the tidal marshlands, there was no need for additional fertilization because the land was fertile enough due to the regular flooding of the sea. Hence, stables were cleaned daily. Hygiene of the udders is essential for milk and dairy production. These stalls are the so-called tie stalls. See also our post An ode to the Haubarg by the green Eiderstedter Nachtigall for more information.

Using pot sherds is something which has clear parallels with how the native peoples of the Amazon worked the land when their societies transformed from slash and burn farming into intensive farming, also about 3,000 years ago. To protect the soil, which stays unprotected longer with intensive farming, they produced enormous quantities of pottery to be smashed and spread over the land. That way, they protected the soil against the generous, hard rain there too. It's the black earth called terra preta, 'black soil', and it's full of potsherds, loads of charcoal, and organic waste from settlements. The charcoal wasn't simply a residue of fireplaces. People actively produced charcoal to optimize the fertilization of the soil admixture (Mann 2006). We're interested in studies explaining the apparent similarities between the terra preta of the Amazon and the Celtic fields of Europe. They occurred at more or less the same time in history as well. Remarkably enough, we couldn't find such answers or studies.

Another intriguing aspect is how things worked with those embankments surrounding the Celtic fields. These banks are many centuries old. Development of the banks might have been as follows. At first, the fields were fenced with wattle work to protect crops against grazing by domestic and wild animals alike. Maybe also to mark the property. Then, over time, refuse from the land was thrown along the fences, together with compost admixtures (of imported, non-local soil, dung, charcoal, and sherds) carted from the farmsteads. Every season, the bank sediment, the Celtic terra preta, was used as fertilizer and for the protection of the soil against the rain. A net sediment preservation must have caused the banks to slowly grow over the centuries (Arnoldussen, 2017).

When you go to the Wadden Sea island Texel, and specifically to the area south of the village Den Burg (called het Oude Land 'the old land'), you may be under the impression that there are still Celtic fields. It is a maze of fields embanked with earthworks. However, these earthworks, locally known as tuunwallen 'garden walls', are only four to five centuries old. They are about one to one-and-a-half meters high and made of sods. The function of tuunwallen was to keep cattle from wandering around.

Heathen encampments

The area we're focusing on in this post is colloquially known as heidense legerplaats or 'heathen encampment' because of the four fort-like structures in this area. Two sites are located near the village of Zeijen, one near the village of Rhee, and one near the village of Vries. The sites have a wall strengthened with a palisade, with an additional small moat, and three to six additional palisades. Some structures had proper gate structures as well. The period during which these structures were in use is between approximately 650 BC and AD 100. This is based on the pottery finds, especially the Ruinen-Wommels, Paddepoel, and Wijster types, and on comparisons with other excavations (Waterbolk 1977). Structure Zeijen II-Witteveen might be the successor of structure Zeijen I.

impression camp Zeijen II-Witteveen by Ulco Glimmerveen

Purpose and function of these Late Iron Age structures are heavily disputed, to this very day. Only concerning the one near Rhee, there seemed to be agreement that this was a walled, small settlement, but even this function has been questioned in the meantime (Van Es & Groenendijk 2023). There's no unanimous view among scholars concerning the others. Far from that, theories vary widely. They range from being a hiding place for cattle during cattle raids by other tribes, a place for livestock after the grazing season at the salt marshes, a place to stock grains, a fortified village, a fort of a local ruler to control trade routes, a regional staple place, a thing assembly site, a place of cult/religious worship, to simply having a symbolic function, or a combination thereof (Van Giffen 1937, Waterbolk 1977, Hiddink 1999, Van der Tuuk 2013, Beek 2019). Zeijen II-Witteveen and Vries Structures Zeijen II-Witteveen and Vries might have the best chances of being places of cult, perhaps similar to Stonehenge (Van Es & Groenendijk 2023).

In other words, we really have no clue. Not even consensus exists on the structures found within the premise of the walls. It seems there were granaries inside most, but also these differ in shape and size from what is normally the case. Other structures are considered either farmsteads, houses, temples (in the case of Vries), dead-houses, barns or stables. All very confusing for us simple hikers, and we're mentally off balance with all the different options.

Therefore too, the comparisons made by scholars, as is done with the Iron-Age hill forts in Britain, the Viereckschanzen 'four-corner fortresses' in southern Germany, or with the Heidenschanze 'heathen fortress' in northern Germany, must all be guesses that rather belong to the game Wheel of Fortune (although you have to be careful with wheels and Celtic gods). The fortified structures themselves, however, are unique to the Netherlands. Nowhere else have similar structures been found from this period. Or it must be the defensive structure Heimenberg on Grebbeberg hill at Rhenen in the Central Netherlands. Next to Celtic fields too, by the way. For more about the Heimenberg fortress, see our post Don’t believe everything they say about sweet Cunera.

Temple of sacrifice in the bog

We want to make mention of yet another unique find in the same region, although a bit older than the timeframe we discussed earlier. It's the little temple, or place of sacrifice, of Barger-Oosterveld near the town of Emmen in the province of Drenthe. It was placed in wetlands, in peatlands. It consisted of four two-meter-high wooden pillars topped with crossbeams with horn-like endings.

bog temple of Barger-Oosterveld

It might have been a sacred place, a place of sacrifice, or a place for safe passage through the bog swamps. Of course, it's just speculation since we weren't there to observe what people did with it. However, this structure fits the historical theory that wetlands had a special spiritual meaning during and from the Bronze Age onward (Eijnatten 2006). Take, for example, the ritual deposits of the six magnificent Bronze Ommerschans-Plougrescant swords in England, France, and the Netherlands, all of which were found in wetlands (Fontijn 2020). One of the six swords was even deliberately deformed before being deposited in the soil. Even during the Early Middle Ages, (deformed) swords and jewellery were thrown into lakes and seas, like in Lake Tissø, Denmark. Therefore, it is thought that the human sacrifices in peatlands, known as bog bodies, deliberately took place in watery environments.

And, if you think it through, an option might also be that the Girl of Yde was not killed for her deformities but because she represented something valuable, she represented a special value. Just like an Ommerschans-Plougrescant sword. Comments on this theory of ours are appreciated.

Are the Frisians guilty?

The Girl of Yde was killed in the bog in the beginning of the first century. The area was, according to the Romans, the territory of the Frisians (Frisii). Analysis of the pottery from the Celtic fields of Noordse Veld, including the walled structures, shows Frisian culture. This pottery is similar to the pottery found in the tidal marshlands and is therefore considered Frisian. This was true at least from 200 BC until AD 100.

impression of Celtic warriors

So, the finger points to the Frisians who have killed her. However, modern Frisians may excuse themselves because the Frisii are, in fact, only a limited ancestor of modern Frisians. During the period ca. 325-425, the salt marshes almost emptied out to be repopulated mainly with immigrants from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia around the mid-fifth century. For more information, read our post Have a Frisians cocktail. The entire history of the Celtic fields also supports the idea that the original or first Frisians (Frisii) were a Celtic people, not Germanic, no matter what the Romans said. For more on this identity issue, with a bit more nuance, read our post Celtic-Frisian heritage: There’s no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune.

Note 1 – Below animation of the Celtic fields at the Utrechtse Heuvelrug (‘Utrecht hill ridge’) in the Central Netherlands.

Note 2- Another spectacular find concerns the Valtherbrug 'Valthe bridge' near the village of Valthe in province Drenthe. It was discovered in 1818 and led to decades of speculation. To this day, its function remains opaque. It was even thought to have been part of the so-called Kon-Rebbers or Roboder ways, names of local folklore referring to the early medieval King Radbod of Frisia. Supposedly, he had king roads constructed in his kingdom. Theories that must be dismissed as fiction or, better, as pulp fiction.

In fact, it turned out to be a peatland road, in Dutch language named a knuppeldam or knuppelweg, constructed in the first century BC. So, well before the military campaigns of Romans in this region, hence made by the native population. The road was three meters wide and made of wooden planks and tree trunks. Twelve kilometers is the total length of the trajectory uncovered. Starting, as said, at the village of Valthe and running to a bit north of the village of Ter Apel. At least 50,000 trees must have been felled to make this road (Lendering 2020, Arentzen 2022).


Suggested music

The Drifters, Under the Boardwalk (1964)

Killing Joke, Love Like Blood (1985)

Further reading

Arentzen, W., Nicolaus Westendorp (1773-1836). Een dominee op zoek naar ‘t begin van ‘t Vaderlands Verleden (2022)

Arnoldussen, S., Het Celtic Field te Zeijen- Noordse veld: kleinschalige opgravingen van wallen en velden van een laat-prehistorisch akkersysteem (2012)

Arnoldussen, S., The Fields that Outlived the Celts: The Use-histories of Later Prehistoric Field Systems (Celtic Fields or Raatakkers) in the Netherlands (2018)

Arnoldussen, S. & Linden, van der M., Palaeo-ecological and archaeological analysis of two Dutch Celtic fields (Zeijen-Noordse Veld and Wekerom-Lunteren): solving the puzzle of local Celtic field bank formation (2017)

Arnoldussen, S. & Vries, de K.M., A plan in place? Celtic field habitation at Westeinde (2017)

Beek, van R. et al, Bogs, bones and bodies: the deposition of human remains in northern European mires (9000 BC–AD 1900) (2023)

Beek, van R. et al, The landscape setting of bog bodies: Interdisciplinary research into the site location of Yde Girl, The Netherlands (2019)

Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)

Coulthard, S., A Short History of the World According to Sheep (2020)

Deem, J.M., Yde Girl, Bog Body from the Netherlands. An unforgettable bog body, originally thought to be the devil (blog)

Es, van W.A. & Groenendijk, H.A., De noordelijke Hondsrug, poort naar het noorden. Betrekkingen in de Romeinse tijd en vroege middeleeuwen (2023)

Fontijn, D., Economy of Destruction. How the systematic destruction of valuables created value in Bronze Age Europe c. 2300-500 BC (2020)

Geheugen van Drenthe, Versterkte nederzettingen (website)

Giffen, van A.E., Een versterking naar Romeinsch patroon op het Noordscheveld bij Zeijen, Gem. Norg (1936)

Giffen, van A.E., Omheinde, inheemsche nederzettingen met aanliggende tumuli, leemkuilen en rijengrafveld te Rhee en Zeijen, Gem. Vries (1937)

Giffen, A.E., Omheinde, inheemsche nederzettingen, tumuli, enz. te Rhee en Zeijen, Gem. Vries (II) (1938)

Hiddink, H.A., Germaanse samenlevingen tussen Rijn en Weser: 1e eeuw voor-4e eeuw na Chr. (1999)

Klamm, M., Aufbau und Entstehung eisenzeitlicher Ackerfluren (“celtic fields”). Neue Untersuchungen im Gehege Ausselbek, Kr. Schleswig-Flensburg (1993)

Lendering, J., De Valtherbrug (2020)

Levine, J., Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets. High-tech tools divulge new information about the mysterious and violent fates met by these corpses (2017)

Ligteneigen, M., Frisii Fortifications (2020)

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

Smit, B.I. et al (eds), Beschermingsprogramma archeologie 2013. Selectievoorstel voor 28 nieuwe archeologische rijksmonumenten (2014)

Spek, T. et al, Archeologische waardering van Celtic fields in Drenthe Een verkennend methodologisch onderzoek (2009)

Stijn, A., Het Celtic Field te Zeijen-Noordse veld (2012)

Todd, M., The Early Germans (1992)

Waterbolk, H. T., Getimmerd verleden. Sporen van voor- en vroeghistorische houtbouw op de zand- en kleigronden tussen Eems en IJssel (2009)

Waterbolk, H.T., Walled enclosures of the Iron Age in the North of the Netherlands (1977)

Waterbolk, H.T., Wonen op de Wadden. 1500 jaar boerderijbouw op onbedijkte kwelders (2009)

Wijnstra, J., Nieuwe archeologisch vondsten in Daalkampen zorgt voor verlangen naar meer: ‘Prikkelt verbeeldingsvermogen’ (2023)


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