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Archaeologist builds early Medieval turf house

In 2015 Daniël Postma published a book titled “Het zodenhuis van Firdgum” (the turf house of Firdgum), in which he reports on a special building and research project addressing a broad audience. PhD student Postma built a large stable with roof-supporting walls of turves in the Frisian coastal zone, with the help of many organisations and volunteers. It is a good example of experimental archaeology with a great academic and societal value.

The turf house in Firdgum, photograph by Frans de Vries (Toonbeeld)
The turf house in Firdgum, photograph by Frans de Vries (Toonbeeld)

Making the past tangible for public and science

Although archaeologists are used to standing in the mud, they do not often create life-size reconstructions. What is the scientific and societal value of a building project such as this one? Postma explains: “As an archaeologist, you try to create an image of the way people lived in an area in a certain period, using the limited clues you have. You can study traces and combine data, but by imitating what past people did, you create a more complete and more reliable image. Each step involves a new decision: Where do you get your turves from, how do you judge their quality, what kind of bond is the strongest? By doing so, you discover all kinds of things about the techniques, the materials and the use of such a house. Turf buildings were the most important type of building in the terp area between the 5th and 7th centuries BC, but because we haven’t built in this way for centuries we lack a proper framework for interpreting their archaeological remains. What should you be looking for when you excavate a turf house? This reconstruction brings a lot of knowledge back into our research.

The same thing goes for the dialogue with the public. The turf house makes the past visible and tangible to everyone. It fires people’s imagination and arouses their interest. Most people do not have a clue that this type of houses used to stand in their local area. You can tell them, but now they can see for themselves.”

Local volunteers at work
Local volunteers at work

Cooperating with myriad organisations

The idea to build a turf house originated from the Yeb Hettinga Museum in Firdgum. Daniël Postma performed a preliminary investigation as a student. The project gradually expanded and more and more organisations became involved, each with their own contribution and expertise. It Fryske Gea provided turves, timber for the roof was arranged for by Staatsbosbeheer (the Dutch Forestry Commission) and the Centrale As (regional roadworks project), and many locals volunteered for building of the house. Omrop Fryslân (regional television network) created a wonderful documentary featuring the project, and regional media and museums also contributed to the visibility of the turf house in the making. The project was financed by the Province of Fryslân, the municipality of Franekeradeel, the project ‘Terpen- en wierdenland: een verhaal in ontwikkeling’ (terp land: a developing story) and many other funds and organisations. In addition, the Province of Fryslân played an important advisory and organisational role behind the scenes.

Daniël Postma explains how to work with local timber, photograph by Frans de Vries (Toonbeeld)
Daniël Postma explains how to work with local timber, photograph by Frans de Vries (Toonbeeld)

Turf building: archaeologically unimportant or current example?

Up to now, there was not a lot of attention for this type of houses in the terp area. Archaeologists tend to look at the shabby 19th and 20th century peat labourers’ houses to form an idea of turf houses. The negative image that was developed as a result of this comparison, combined with a lack of information on the advantages of turf building, has led to the idea that turf houses were never more than a marginal architectonic phenomenon. However, if you look at the extensive excavations at Wijnaldum, where gold objects and costly jewellery were found, you find that archaeologists are struggling with this idea. How is it possible that during the heyday of the Frisian-Groningen terp area, people mostly built turf houses? The turves must have had favourable characteristics, otherwise the rich and trading ‘Frisians’ would have turned to a more timber-oriented type of construction.

“It is remarkable that the early medieval building tradition from the northern Netherlands, links up perfectly with the current attention for sustainable building. Indeed, people worked with materials that were available locally and were used sensibly. For example, they didn’t saw up carefully managed straight trees to obtain a number of straight beams, but put to their advantage the natural curves of easily obtainable thinner roundwood to create a strong roof construction. For this reason, the building industry is interested in the project. I was invited to contribute to a workshop in Scotland, where architects finding inspiration from successful ancient building traditions. Students of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven), who calculated the sustainability level of the turf house according to present-day criteria, came to the conclusion: Those medieval people were not so backwards at all, the turf house is a wonderful example of sustainability.”

Terpencentrum and community-mindedness

This PhD research is being carried out under the flag of the Terp Research Group at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA). The research group strives to enhance the quality, visibility and accessibility of the research of the terpen (settlement mounds), both for archaeologists and non-archaeologists. Postma: “But other people at the GIA are also actively participating in a discussion regarding the added societal value of archaeological research and the way we can bring it into the limelight. Archaeologists often deal with excavations that are being funded by the government, commercial organisations or even private individuals who wish to develop an area. Being the ‘disturbers’ of buried heritage, they bear the costs of a legally obliged archaeological investigation. It is of great importance to archaeologists to explain to the (tax) payer that this money is well spent. This means that you have to make sure the research is accessible and appealing to a great audience. In many cases, separate projects and publications are designed for a wider audience, but one could also make sure that scientific publications are more community-minded.

I have now chosen to use the book written for a general public as the basis for my PhD dissertation. Of course, additions are needed to be able to obtain my PhD, but the well-edited main text will remain the point of departure. I think that apart from the general audience, scientists appreciate a well-written and designed text as well!”

Last modified:10 April 2019 2.17 p.m.
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