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Culture 2000

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A bridge from the Viking Age in Wellinghusen

The saltmarshes of Dithmarschen stretch from the Eider in the north to the Elbe in the south. They had been silted up westward of the once densely forested old moraine hills and the lower peat plains. The Meldorfer Bay, once cut deep into the land and divided the marsh into the southern "Südermarsch" and its northern counterpart, the "Nordermarsch".

The fascinating landscape along the North Sea coast in Schleswig-Holstein, with its tidal mud flats - the "Wadden Sea" - its beaches, islands, "Halligen" and marshes is the product of centuries of play between the forces of nature and the influence of man. During the 1st millenium AD man was totally depended from the influcence of the sea: During times without stormfloods ground settlement were founded on higher silted up saltmarshes in the time of the 1st and 7th century AD. In periods of heavier stormfloods man erected dwelling mounds (Wurten) to protect thereselves and their farmsteads. Since the 12th century first dikes were built and the peat covered marsh land was drained - the nature landscape changed into a cultural landscape.

New informations of the development of the cultural landscape are mainly brought forth through the research of the Coastal Archaeology Section in the Research and Technology Centre Westküste (Forschungs- und Technologiezentrum Westküste). Pedological, geological and archaeological studies in Schleswig-Hols have pointed out that land has been regained from marshes since the middle of the last century BC, as is also the case in the Netherlands and Lower-Saxony. Adjoining the tidal mud flats we find salt marshes, which are deeply forked by sloughs. The salt marsh serves as pasture for the extensive and rural techniques of farming cattle, horse and sheep. Due to flooding of the salt marsh, farming crops is restricted to few higher spots, like marsh ridges or shoreline ridges along the sloughs.

During a wide spread time of regression of the seal level in the early 1st century AD, Germanic farmers began to settle the saltmarshes of Schleswig-Holstein. "Longhouses" as typical farm buildings - around 5 m wide and 20 m long - were erected on sod pedestals. They are similar to those in Tiebensee and accommodated both, man and livestock. Typical of these houses are pairs of interior vertical posts, which were sunk into the ground and supported the roof from the inside, dividing the room into three "naves". Exterior posts were also hoisted to support the reed-covered roof. Plant remains suggest that the settlements were relatively high above sea level and quite dry. With the nearby salt marshes serving as good grazing ground, the settlements based their farming on livestock. The settlement of Tiebensee was left in the 2nd century AD, possibly because the hinterland of the settlement became boggy. Therefore the available ground for grazing of cattle became more and more limited.

Westward of Tiebensee new settelments were founded in the salt marshes. On lower ground in Haferwisch first Wurten were erected around 150 AD. The oldest Wurten of Roman time in Dithmarschen were founded around 50 AD in Süderbusenwurth.

A look into the past is given by the Roman writer Plinius, who 2000 years ago, wrote the following while travelling along the North Sea coast:

"Also in the North, have I seen tribes of the Chauken [a germanic tribe] In an unbelievable onrush, both at day and at night, the sea takes to the land, spreads itself over immense expanses and covers an area constantly fought over by Nature’s elements, making it questionable, whether it belongs to the land or is part of the sea. Here lives a poor people on high hills or trestles erected by human hands, raised to the height of the highest floods. Here they also build their houses, and are like seafarers when the water covers their surroundings, as if shipwrecked, when the water retreats. Near their huts they catch fish on the descending tide, and they cannot keep livestock or nourish themselves from milk like their neighbours. They cannot even hunt the wild creatures, for far and wide there is neither bush nor shrub. They make their fishing nets from lines woven out of sea grass or rushes. With their hands they gather peat, dry it more in the wind than in the sun and use it to cook their food and warm their limbs, numbed stiff from the ever-blowing Northwind. To drink they have but rainwater, which they gather in holes before their huts. Nevertheless, these tribes speak of slavery, if they are conquered by the Romans today. Truly, many are protected to punishment by destiny.

Plinius the Elder (23-79 n. Chr.) , Naturalis Historia, Book 16,2, translated freely by Steffen Pauls


During the 5th century after Christ numerous discoveries suggest a decrease in population in the once densely populated region. This depopulation already began earlier in the coastal region of Dithmarschen, already in the 3rd and 4th century AD. This depopulation correlates with a climatic change, causing storm events, which caused flooding of the salt marshes and the often too low lying farm land.

While some parts of the saltmarshes in Dithmarschen were only covered by thin layers of sediments after flooding events and lost only little stretches of land, other parts of the marshland were destroyed. Large expanses of land in the Eider estuary were lost to the sea. Near the "Dorfwurt" Feddersen Wierde, north of Bremerhaven, fluvial deposit over ancient agrarian land dating back to the time around the Nativity and dovetailing sediments and layers from the building of the "Wurten" indicate the danger of storm tides. Such flooding events reduced the area of arable land, diminishing the basis of the inhabitants diet.

After the germanic tribes left the salt marshes of Schleswig-Holstein and the rest of the northwestern coast, new salt marshes, criss-crossed by many sloughs, developed on the seaward side of the older marshes in north Ditmarschen, which were densely populated until the 4th century. These saltmarshes inhibited the natural draining of the landward marshes. By the turn of the 1st Millenium, peat bogs and reeds extended over wide areas. The new saltmarshes offered place for land reclamation for regaining land for settlement, which began in the 7th century. On higher marsh ridges near tidal creeks ground settlements, like in Wellinhusen, were erected. During the 9th and 10th century larger Dorfwurten developed in Dithmarschen, some of which are among the largest and highest in Schleswig-Holstein.

The most impressive example of settlement during this period is found in the excavation of the Dorfwurt Wellinghusen north of Wöhrden, the first records of which date to 1560. Numerous findings from these 5 m high "Wurt" layers allow the dating of the different periods of settlement from the 7th to the 14th century. Archaeological finds, like ceramics, wooden and iron tools give an impression of the live the settlement. Different posts of oak, which were used for buildings, which have been dendrochronologically dated.

The first settlers established their first houses in the 7th/8th century on reed covered marsh ridges, which were raised about 1,8 m above the sea level. One of the well-preserved houses dates back to the year 691. It was built on a flat sod pedestal, with lattice walls and interlaced roof-supporting posts. This dendrochronligical date of the oak which was used for this building, is one of the first datings that suggesting settlement activity in Dithmarschen after the migration period. A wide bridge crossed the slough near the excavation site, where it once connected two areas of settlement. Repairs on the bridge are dated back to the year 782.

After the beginning of the 9th century storm tides forced the settlers to raise their ground settelments with manure and clay. First 1 m high Wurten were formed. Reinforcement and raising of these Wurten lead to a fulfilling of the slough with muck. The slough was then covered and sealed with clay. Eventually, around 1000 AD, the Dorfwurt raised about 4 m above sea level. It was once again raised with clay in medieval times to a height of 6,2 m. First farmsteads were built outside the old settelment since the same time, the Dorfwurt Wellinghusen itself ceased completely in the 13th and 14th centuries.

How can we imagine whow such a "Dorfwurth" built out of numerous single farm "Wurths" would look like during centuries? The model of the total excvated Feddersen Wierde gives us an good idea, although here, the farmsteads were built concentrically around an open square, rather than parallel in rows, as was the case in Wellinghusen.

On these large "Dorfwurten" in Dithmarschen economically and socially leading people developed and became independend from outside aristocratic nobles. Organised in parishes they held political, military and judicial power until the end of the intependend "Free Peasant Republic" of Dithmarschen in 1559. The wealth of the leading lineages was based on the systematic draining and colonisation of inland marshes and bogs. They formed the cultural landscape of the mashland in there we live today.

design: Kai M. Wurm
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