Saturday, 21 November 2015

Reconstructing an early medieval turf house in the Netherlands

This is a time lapse video showing the reconstruction of an 8th century turf farmhouse at the Yeb Hettinga Museum in the village of Firdgum, Friesland, northern Netherlands:

The finished house in November 2015:

(University of Groningen/

 Firdgum had a population of 100 in 2004, according to Wikipedia, and is located in the fertile salt marshes along the coast of northern Friesland.   

Location of Friesland in the Netherlands (in red).  (Wikipedia)

Landscape in Friesland with sheep (source).
Horses in a salt marsh in Lauwersmeer, Friesland (source).

In the days before dykes, regular flooding prevented trees from growing in the north of the Netherlands, so very little wood was available to build houses.  Starting around 400 AD, houses there were built on artificial platforms to keep them out of the flood water, and constructed  of stacked clay turf blocks (turves). The walls of this house are a metre thick, which both insulates the house from the cold of the North Sea coast and supports the weight of the roof. 

Most of the 8th century house collapsed due to a roof leak in 2013 and was reconstructed starting in 2014 by volunteers, in coordination with the University of Groningen. 

The collapsed house, from a article dated November 2013 (Photo by Jakob Talsma)

You can see the exposed rafters of the turf house here.  I'm guessing that's the museum building behind it, but I haven't been able to translate 'Yeb Hettinga Skoalle.'  That might be in Frisian, not Dutch. (Photo by Daniel Postma)

The pre-collapse roof, replaced in the summer of 2013, was made of layers of sod and manure over wooden rafters, but the roof of the 2015 reconstruction is made of thatch over wooden rafters.  I don't know why that might be.

The 2014-2015 reconstruction project was part of DaniĆ«l Postma’s PhD research into building traditions in the northern coastal regions of the Netherlands.  Postma published a book, Het zodenhuis van Firdgum – Middeleeuwse boerderijbouw in het Friese kustgebied tussen 400 en 1300 (”The Firdgum sod house: Medieval farmhouse building in the Frisian coastal area between 400 and 1300″) which details the design and construction process of the turf house.  (Description of the book translated by Google).

The article on the reconstruction describes the house:
The [farm house], which is nearly 17 metres long, is characterized by a 1 metre-thick carrier wall made of layered turf, as was customary throughout the region from the fifth to the early eighth century. It is also the first archaeological reconstruction with an arch-shaped roof construction, which clearly distinguishes it from the rectangular trusses of existing historic farmhouses.

I couldn't find more than a couple progress photos of the reconstruction, just the video up top and a few casual photos on the Zodenhuis Project Twitter (mostly in Dutch), but I did find some good quality photos of a roof replacement done on the house in the summer of 2013 on the Zodenhuis Project Tumblr (in Dutch):

The stripped inside of the house (May 2013)
The rafters almost ready to be covered with sod (May 2013)

Applying cow manure mixed with straw over top of the turves to provide a waterproof layer (May 2013)

Manure being applied to the first layer of sod (May 2013)

"On the west side the roof of the sod house is now equipped with the first layer of turf. This side now awaits a layer of manure and two layers of sod." (June 2013)

The house after it re-opened to the public later in 2013:

The finished house.  I think those dots are cow patties stuck to the walls to dry.

That little girl is even wearing wooden clogs.  I'm guessing that's early medieval dress (Yeb Hettinga Museum).

Inside the house (Zodenhuis Project, fall 2013)

A pot of something cooking over an open fire inside (Yeb Hettinga Museum).
Houses in prehistoric and early medieval Europe didn't have chimneys, so the smoke from the fire either drifted out through the door, if it was open, or just filtered out through the roof, like this thatched example in Ireland:

From Aidan O'Sullivan on Twitter.
There's a bit more on early medieval Frisian turf houses and this house's construction at Daniel Postma's Tumblr, the  Zodenhuis Firdham Facebook page (in Dutch) and Twitter (mostly in Dutch), the Zodenhuis Project Tumblr (inactive, in Dutch), but I've summarised most of it here. I found a couple academic articles in the links section of the project Tumblr, but I can't read Dutch and that's more than Google Translate can handle.


  1. I always wanted to live in a Medieval turf/thatched roof house. In Ireland, I saw he and I was like, ugh, maybe not? The cold would destroy me. Guess I am a true Norman at heart, give me a stone castle any day;).

  2. It might be nice in the summer, as long as you didn't have to cook over a fire! Or refrigerate things, or do laundry. The cold would wreck me too, especially in northern Europe. I think I will just stick with looking at museums.

    I have a friend in England whose grandmother lived in a thatched cottage when the friend was a child, but she says rats in the thatch were a problem :/

    1. They had refridgeration... it was dug into hillsides or down into the ground... way back even to the Bronze age... but pest control was a problem I am sure... Usually the fridge, at least in Ireland, doubled as an escape route tunnel if your settlement became indefensable and you had to run. I may have a picture of it on my facebook with a blurry husband standing half inside (I refuse to go near it, it was that cold and wet).

    2. Stone castles are also freezing but they generally leak less* and I can do just fine with a giant fireplace so long as it had a chimney that worked, and a four posted bed... sleeping a great hall though... couldn't have done that. Privacy, privacy.... how weird, that life in the past had so little of it.

  3. Oh cool! I don't have a very good idea of how ordinary life in the British Isles worked that long ago.

    It sure is cold and wet. We mostly can't heat the house, so I just wear a lot of layers and a toque and scarf around the house and it's fine, but I still wouldn't want to be living in a stone castle! Or anything made of stone.

    I was reading about queens giving birth with like twenty people in the room watching. And going to mass while they were in labour (someone wanted to know if you could switch the babies and have someone else be king, or just adopt a child you hadn't given birth to and have them inherit. Nope). And knights trying to illicitly sleep with ladies in the great hall full of people at night, in the Arthurian stories. Yikes. I would have been a hermit or a nun, there's no way I could deal with that many people around.

    1. lol yeah... and the consumation of the wedding itself for a Queen sometimes had to have people listening... lovely. Mood killer there. no wonder so many kings had issues;)