• Hans Faber

The Killing Fields, of the Celts

About 2,000 years ago a tragedy unfolded. A sixteen-years-old girl, who suffered during her young life from scoliosis, 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. 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 province Drenthe. It was not investigative journalism that brought this crime to light, but two peat cutters who found her in 1897. In this post we will investigate this cold case, and dig a bit deeper into the world of the early Frisians.

Girl of Yde

When both peat cutters found the mummy of the red-haired girl in the Bourtange Moor, they thought it was the Devil, and ran away from her at first. For several days, the body was left laying unprotected. But then the villagers came to the find, and they continued where their ancient predecessors left off, and kept molesting her. They took out 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 is dated between 54 BC and 128 AD. Other details of the girl are that she was about only 1,40 meters tall and wore a woollen cloak. Her scoliosis was serious, and she probably was cripple. The Girl of Yde is exhibited in the Drents Museum.

After the reason behind her killing, one can only guess. Most scholars assume it was a sacrifice and suggest even that because of her look of peace, she was drugged beforehand. Just as well, she might have been punished. The 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). Or even, the woollen rope was, in fact, a shawl. We shall never know, probably. Good to know, is that her find is not unique.

Everywhere in wet and rainy northwestern Europe where peatlands exist (or existed, since most have been commercially excavated) 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 too. They could not have all smiled, one tends to think. Anyway, these northwestern peatlands stretched from the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany to Denmark, and to a lesser extent to Sweden as well. Indeed, places where it rains a lot.

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 on different types of habitat, namely: the tidal marshlands in the north adjacent the sea, the estuaries and riverbanks everywhere along the coast, the dunes and sandy ridges along the western coast of the Netherlands, and elevated areas bordering the peatlands more inland. The peatlands, as it were, squeezed between tidal marshlands and sandy elevations. Often former ground-moraine ridges. Living on elevated, sandy soils next to the lower, boggy peatlands, offered good possibilities for agriculture, as we shall see below. It is here where the so-called Celtic fields or keltischer Felder developed, also called raatakkers or Ackerterassen in respectively Dutch and German language. Proximity of water might also have offered the possibility to supplement the diet with protein with fish. And, it had a ritual meaning, as we shall explain further below.

Celtic Fields

We will focus on the Celtic fields of the Frisii in the north of the Netherlands, just south of the city of Groningen. The so-called Noordse Veld ‘northern field’. 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. All dating from the Middle and Late Iron Age. Habitation history even goes even back 6,000 years with the presence of the many dolmen in this region. That is, by the way, still younger than the wooden canoe found at the village of Pesse in province Drenthe, which is dated about 9,500 years old. Hence the oldest water vessel of the world and exhibited in the Drents Museum also. Read our post Oldest Vessel of the World. Side remark, dolmen are called hunnebedden in Dutch, which translates as ‘beds of Huns’.

Research at the 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 finds the landscape hopeful and suggests the earthworks are part of the former, heathen hiding places of the Suebi tribe. Celtic fields are terribly old and existed in northwestern Europe, especially the Netherlands, Belgian Kempian plateau, northwestern Germany and Denmark and southern Scandinavia. The fields date generally between 1,000 BC and AD 100. Therefore, they seize to exist more or less with the arrival of the Romans in the first century. When comparison is made with the Celtic fields of Britain, the ones in the Netherlands have a more rectangular shape and not embanked with stones but with, what else, earthworks.

Recent studies revealed more insight 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 with house debris. House debris is recognizable through the charcoal and the many ceramic sherds. Some even speak of a Scherbenschleier ‘a veil of sherds’ laying over the Celtic fields (Klamm 1993). The suggestion is that the imported, wet soil was first used in stables, explaining the dung traces.

Using pot sherds, is something which has parallels with how the native peoples of the Amazon worked the land when their societies transformed from slash and burn farming into intensive farming, 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 protecting the soil against the generous, hard rain. It is called terra preta, and is full of pot sherds, charcoal, and organic waste of the settlement. The charcoal was probably not simply a residue of fireplaces, but the people actively produced coal to optimize fertilization of the soil admixture (Mann 2006).

Another intriguing aspect is how things worked with those embankments surrounding the fields. These banks are many centuries old. The development of the banks might have been as follows. At first the fields were fenced with wattlework to protect crops against grazing of domestic and wild animals alike. And, maybe also to mark the property. Then, over time refuse of 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 protection of the soil. A net sediment preservation caused the banks to slowly grow over the centuries (Arnoldussen 2017).

Heathen encampments

The area we are focusing on in this post is colloquially known as the heidense legerplaats ‘heathen encampment’. This because of the four fort-like structure 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 these structures were in use is between ca. 650 BC – AD 100. This based on the pottery found (Ruinen-Wommels, Paddepoel and Wijster types) and on comparison with other excavations (Waterbolk 1977). Zeijen II might be the successor of Zeijen I.

impression camp Zeijen I by Ulco Glimmerveen

Purpose and function of these structures is heavily disputed, to this very day. Only concerning Rhee there seems to be agreement this was a walled, small village. There is no unanimous view among scholars concerning the other ones. Far from that and theories vary widely. From a hiding place for cattle during cattle raids of other tribes, a place for livestock after the grazing season at the salt marshes, a place to stock grain and other products, a fortified village, a fort of a local ruler to control through ways, a regional staple place, a religious place, to a place with simply a symbolic function, or a combination thereof (Beek 2019, Hiddink 1999, Van Giffen 1937, Waterbolk 1977). In other words, we have no clue. Not even consensus on the structures found within the premise of the walls. It seems there were granaries inside most structures, 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), barns or stables. All very confusing for us hikers, and we are off balance too.

So, comparisons made by scholars, as is done, with Iron-Age hill forts in Britain, the Viereckschanzen in southern Germany, or with the Heidenschanze 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, however, are unique for the Netherlands. Nowhere else have similar structures been found.

Temple of sacrifice in the bog

We want to make mention of another unique find in the region, although a bit older than the timeframe we discussed earlier. It is the little temple, or place of sacrifice, of Barger-Oosterveld, near the town of Emmen in province Drenthe. It was placed in the wetlands, in peatlands. It consisted of four two-meters-high, wooden pillars, topped with cross beams 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. Also, this structure fits the theory the special, spiritual meaning wetlands had during the Bronze Age and beyond. Take for example the ritual deposits of the six magnificent, Bronze Ommerschans-Plougrescant swords in England France, the Netherlands, are all in wetlands (Fontijn 2020). Even during the Early Middle Ages, swords and jewellery were thrown in lakes and seas, like in lake Tissø, Denmark. It is therefore thought that the human sacrifices in peatlands, the so-called bog bodies, deliberately took place in this watery environment. 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, had a special value.

Are the Frisians guilty?

The Girl of Yde was killed in the bog in the beginning first century. The area was according to the Romans the territory of the Frisians (Frisii). The analysis of the pottery found at the Celtic fields of the Noordse Veld, including the walled the structures, are like the pottery found at the tidal marshlands. Frisian therefore. At least over the period 200 BC until AD 100.


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

Further reading

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, The landscape setting of bog bodies: Interdisciplinary research into the site location of Yde Girl, The Netherlands (2019)

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)

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)

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)