History of the Terp

Everyone knows the Netherlands is flat. Apart from the three hills in Limburg, flat, completely flat. Or is it?
If one looks closely, particularly in the coastal provinces of Friesland and Groningen (and to a lesser extent, Noord-Holland and Zeeland), one can see churches, farms and even villages raised up on flattish hillocks. (There were once ones in Drenthe, but they have since disappeared.) These are known as terps (terpen in Dutch) and have been around since at least 500 BC.

The word terp

The word terp is from the Frisian, meaning ‘village’ and is closely related to the old English word thorp (plenty of place names in the UK with that ending) and the Dutch word for village: dorp. In Groningen the word wierde, meaning ‘height’ or ‘living hill’ is used.
Place names showing a history of being built on a terp tend to end in –um in Friesland (Dokkum, Marum, Bakkum, to name a few) and in Groningen in – werd (Garnwerd, Selwerd for example, but also Saksum, Bedum), whereas those in Noord-Holland tend to end in –werf (e.g. Wieringerwerf). Interestingly, the capital of Friesland, Leeuwarden is an amalgation of several villages built on terps.

History of the terp

Terps were originally built to protect houses, whole villages and churches from flooding (by sea or river) and were communal constructions. They became higher as time went on and as human and animal waste slowly raised them up.

Later, when dykes were built to control flooding and water levels throughout the region more effectively, they were no longer viewed as necessary. Due to the centuries of animal waste being dumped on them and concentrated there, the ground was very fertile. In the 18th and 19th century, they were dug up and the fertile earth sold to spread around less fertile ground. Unfortunately, this was done indiscriminately, thereby not only defacing the landscape but also losing much archaeological information and hundreds of thousands of artefacts from every day pottery and animal bones to Roman statuettes. All the ones in Drenthe were lost during this time.

The practice was slowed and halted in the mid-19th century when the government decided to tax the ownership of terps because of the sale of the fertile land. This had the added (unintended) bonus that all terps were catalogued and inventorised, allowing for present day historical and archaeological studies.

Terps today

So terps today are not deemed necessary anymore, but many have survived and give a characteristic look to churches and villages around the northern coastal provinces. If you wish to visit some, check out the lists on Wikipedia, for example. The trip would be worth it just to discover and explore some of the little villages around the area, some of which are truly lovely within themselves. The provided lists are not comprehensive and once you know what to look for, you may be able to spot some and add them to the list yourself!

Credit & Attributions

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Posted under: Dutchness

Media Attributions
Dutch Terps, copyright Alexandra van den Doel