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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

The raider’s portrait from Appels

figurehead of Appels (Belgium)

In the year 1934, while dredging upstream the river Scheldt near the village of Appels in the region of Flanders, an extraordinary ship’s figurehead (see featured image above) was found. It is dated around the year AD 400. Among scholars there seems agreement it is Germanic and that it originates from the southern North Sea coast. Hitherto, no people or country has claimed being the rightful owner of this remarkable piece of carved wood. Of course, the descendants of the northern raiders considered it. Alas, Vikings only started their raiding operations four centuries later. Well, today, on July 31, 2021, it has been claimed. Indeed, by the Frisian people.

If you look at the terrifying sculpture, imagination starts running wild. Imagine, twenty to thirty warriors in a ship, rowing way up the river Scheldt in the dead of night. Perhaps a Raubschare ‘war band’ of three ships. Men tough as Nails. All shielded. Carrying a long saex ‘knife’ and a spear. Some even had an iron helmet. “Iesenere mannen in de houten schepen,” (‘iron men in wooden ships’) as the last surviving skipper of the traditional rescue rowboats along the Dutch North Sea coast, Jan IJes Teerdstra from island Schiermonnikoog, described his rowers in 1976.

Last winter around the year 400, on the distant shores of the Wadden Sea, Frisians prepared their raid of the area of Sincfala and the river Scheldt carefully. Through trade contacts and previous lootings, they had gathered precise information about the treasure to be found, calculated how many warriors were needed in order to have supremacy in battle, figured out the navigation on the meandering river etc etc. Now it was early spring and these filibusters carried out their cunning plans and made the attack. In a ship with the name Sterke Yerke III perhaps. Rowing from the Wadden Sea coast up the river Scheldt in Flanders would have taken them about ten days.

The figurehead of Appels is made of oak wood and is 149 centimetres long. It is estimated that the ship to which it belonged, had a length of eighteen metres. Furthermore, the figurehead was dismountable. Maybe when raiding, it was mounted. Like the Jolly Roger flag with its skull image centuries later.

The unique piece is kept on the wrong side of the English Channel, namely in the British Museum. Soon, a request will be filed with the British Government to return this piece of national heritage to the Frisians. Possibly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will challenge the request. But the Frisians have excellent credentials:

In our post It all began with piracy, we already described how from the second century onward the peoples of the southern North Sea coast engaged in full-swing piracy. And how it was the bases for a new common North Sea culture. From their homelands north and east of the limes, thus outside Roman control, they pillaged the Roman coasts south of the river Rhine, on both sides of the English Channel, of East England, and of Brittany. In the course of the third century, the Romans responded with creating the Litus Saxonicum, which was basically a series of coastal defensive structures and the deployment of several naval bases. Eventually, all with no avail.

The zenith of piracy happened in tandem with strong, natural erosion of the southern coast of the North Sea. Say, from the town of Nieuwpoort in Belgium to that of Esbjerg in Denmark. Due to sediment exhaustion of the sea, the North Sea became ‘high-energetic’ from the second or third century onward, and started eating and degenerating the southern coastal zone (Tys 2002). Filling its stomach with more sediment again. Dune rows protecting the coast were breached, and the salty sea carved itself deep into the sweet interior. Swallowing masses of peatland and forest.

It is also in the third century that the Frisians started to migrate south, to the delta regions of the rivers Meuse, Waal and Scheldt. They also moved upstream the river Scheldt. At the village of Zele in Flanders, typical hand-shaped Frisian ware vessels have been excavated dating from this period. Furthermore, they were, in fact, Frisians and not Franks who revolted against Emperor Constantius I in the river Scheldt region in the year 293. The Romans, however, were successful in crushing the rebellion and deported both the Frisians, calling them praedatores ‘looters’ by the way, and the Chamavi to the Gaulish interior (Dhaeze 2019).

This is our plea and it should suffice. Now, Boris, hand over the damn piece of ancient wood. Before big apples become angry!


Note 1 – The figurehead of Appels was part of the Maertens de Noordhout Collection, together with five other wood-carved dragon- or animal heads. Between 1930-1950 six such heads were found in the upper valley of the river Scheldt. Besides Appels, two heads were found at Hamme, one at Moerzeke-Mariekerke, one at Wetteren, and one at Zele. The head of Moerzeke-Mariekerke is dated ca. AD 350, and of Zele ca. AD 690. Of the three pieces of Hamme and Wetteren, to this day we have no idea how old they are. The British Museum aquired the three heads of Appels, Moerzeke-Mariekerke and Zele. More recent research dates this head between ca. 390-550. The head of Moerzeke-Mariekerke is therefore also interesting in the context of this post. It is unclear whether it belonged to a ship, a piece of furniture, or you just name it.

animal head Moerzeke-Mariekerke, Flanders

Note 2 – In our post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders, you can find more information about the presence of the Frisians down there.

Note 3 – Do not get confused, a replica of the figurehead has been made in Flanders, that is somehow associated with Vikings. The ship received also a Scandinavian name, namely Nøkkvi.

Note 4 – The name Sterke Yerke III 'strong Yerke' in this post refers to the name of the raft made by four Frisian guys from the city of Leeuwarden, and with which they crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the port town of Harlingen to the island of Bonaire in the Caribbean in the year 1979.

Suggested music

Further reading

Bruce-Mitford, R., Ships figure head in the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages (1970)

De Graeve, A., Het vergeten deel van de collectie Maertens de Noordhout boven water gehaald. Studie naar de vroegmiddeleeuwse rivierdeposities in de Scheldevallei (2010)

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

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

Haan, de A.C. (ed), Roeiend redden. Het roereddingwezen van Texel tot Schiermonnikoog (19760

Hollevoet, Y. & Roeyen, van J.P., Germanic Settlers at Sint-Gillis-Waas? (1992)

Loveluck, C.P. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600-1000 (2006)

Tys, D., De inrichting van een getijdenlandschap. De problematiek van de vroegmiddeleeuwse nederzettingsstructuur en de aanwezigheid van terpen in de kustvlakte: het voorbeeld van Leffinge (2002)


Sep 13, 2021

This is great to read, you do a fantastic job at capturing history while remaining funny! I am Frisian and British and glad to read this!

Hans Faber
Hans Faber
Nov 17, 2021
Replying to

So nice to hear!

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