Cultural Entities 


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1. Overview




River Ems, rivers Leda and Jümme


around 265 km²

Location - map:

Southern East Frisia in Lower Saxony, Lower Saxony, Germany

Origin of name:

‘Land above the Leda’, that is the land to the south of the River Leda

Relationship/similarities with other cultural entities:

Similar natural and cultural landscape to the neighbouring cultural entities around the river Ems (Rheiderland, Krummhorn).

Characteristic elements and ensembles:

Right-angle roads and drainage systems, linear villages and embankment-hedges, Plantation landscape, Fehn-villages, “Kübbing”-houses

2. Geology and geography

2.1 General
The Ems in the east and the rivers Leda and Jümme in the north mark the boundaries of Overledingen. Sited in Lower Saxony, Overledingen is one of four historic cultural landscapes of the administrative district of Leer, together with the Rheiderland, the Moormerland and the Lengenerland. The name Overledingen can be translated as “Land above the Leda”, thus the area south of the river Leda. Nowadays the historic cultural landscape includes the communities of Westoverledingen, Westrhauderfehn and Ostrhauderfehn, as well as the Nettelburg area of the town of Leer. In a north-south direction Overledingen stretches over 20 km from Leer to Burlage.

Historically speaking the Nesse-peninsula in the city of Leer also belongs to the region of Overledingen, as the bend of the river Leda was only cut through recently. The river marsh with the somewhat higher embankment bordered the watercourses in the north of the Overledingerland. The low-lying land joined this in the east. Overledingen is delimited by a Geest-ridge with in some areas extensive bog which stretch to the edge of the marshland. In the south lies the “Langholter Tief” area, the ”Rote Riede”, which drained the geest. Nowadays practically all the bogs have been practically drained and stripped extensively.

2.2 Present landscape
Overledingen is a plantation-landscape with hardy any relief, which has fertile areas in the form of river marshes.
From north to south a Geest-ridge runs through the middle of the communal district of Westoverledingen. Geest designates a type of land which results from Ice Age deposits and which is generally higher than the marshes. In the settlement history of northern Germany the Geest was populated earlier than the marshes, as it offered protection against storm floods. Apart from this, there was a strict division between farmers in Geest- and marsh cultures, which was not least determined by the different degrees of fertility of the area.

In the south of the Overledingerland there are a number of valley pastures, which drain the Geest and its peatlands. Nowadays the peatlands are mainly dry and drained and only survive rudimentarily. The historic settlement structures that has hardly changed up to the present, are based on the community of Westoverledingen along the Federal road (B 70), an old army-road, which links East Frisia with the Emsland and the Münsterland.

3. Landscape and settlement history 

The large scale investigation of the North German mud flats, as well as to a smaller degree the Overledingen marsh, has been carried out by the Archaeological Service of the East-Frisian Association (Ostfriesische Landschaft) and the Institut für historische Küstenforschung (Institute for Historic Coastal Research) among others.

3.1 Prehistoric and Medieval Times

The origins of settlement in the Overdingerland have been little studied. From the Neolithic period, about 4.000 BC, the Geest was populated by farmers. The few archaeological finds suggest that the settlement was similar to that in the Moormerland. Here too in the marsh the settlements were built on the high embankments of the rivers, so guaranteeing a certain protection against flooding. A number of these settlements had to be abandoned in the late Middle Ages as increased flooding made them uninhabitable.
The Overledingenland belonged to the Carolingian Emsgau in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, after being freed from rule by foreign counts, an independent Frisian regional community was established with the help of a number of Saxon communities. The venue for general meetings of the Sechzehner Rat (The Council of the Sixteen) in the Overdingerland was presumably Backemoor, situated in the north of the region. Due to the economic preconditions the Overdingerland was unable to acquire a strong position comparable to that of, for example, the Brookmerland further north, or the Harlinger- or Jeverland. A system of classic feudalism did not establish itself in Friesland.
In the 15th century Hamburg and the chieftains put an end to the area’s autonomy. and Overledingerland came under the administrative rule of the ruling family Tom Brok and then to the family Focko Ukena and then the family Cirksena. Afterwards the Overledingerland merged with the county of East Frisia.

3.2 Early Modern Times
Since the 17th century the region of the Overledingerland has been marked by the strong imposition of man-made structures within the largely natural area. In connection with the strong anthropogenic demands, the currently prevailing cultural historic form of landscapes and settlements, especially in the area of peatlands, was developed. There is an impression of a natural area, largely untouched, in the Jümminger Hammrich between the rivers Leda and Jümme. Nowadays the typical image of the cultural landscape is of right-angle roads and drainage systems, linear villages and embankment-hedges, demonstrating how people tried to colonise and cultivate that fairly inhospitable land.
The unified community Rhauderfehn in Overledingen consists of ten centres, all of which had quite different and far reaching historys. The oldest part of the community is probably the village of Backemoor in the North of Rhauderfehn, which possibly was the centre of all economic activities in the Overledingerland during East Frisian autonomy.
In 1769 the community of Westrhauderfehn was founded as a fen-settlement by a number of business people, who subsequently called themselves the Rhauder-Fehn-Compagnie. The basis for the livelihood of the villages was the digging and selling of peat. The settlements were called after the bog (Fehn) Fehn-villages. Characteristic of the Fehn-village of Rhauderfehn are the long canals, used both to drain the marshland and to transport peat. The main canals are the Südwieken, which flow into the Untenende. The peat was mainly transported out in their own ships and taken to the neighbouring towns and other areas short of fuel. On the way back dung, clayey soil, excrement off the roads and other waste materials were brought along, to be used as fertiliser on the stripped areas.
A number of years before, five businessmen from Ostrhauderfehn had lodged a petition with the Prussian king. They asked for the bog-area in the north of the Overledingerland so that they could lay out a new “Fehn”. On the 19th of April 1769 they received permission for the project which had already commenced. This marks the beginning of the community of Ostrhauderfehn, whose identity is marked by long canals for peat transport up to the present day.

3.3 Modern Times
In the 20th century various communal changes occurred, which in the end led to today’s division of the region. Thus on the 1st of January 1973 ten communities were merged under the Lower Saxon administrative reform into the one community of Rhauderfehn. The community of Westvorledingen emerged from formerly 12 communities under the same reform. In the 1980s Ostrhauderfehn grew continuously. Up to the 31st of December 2004 all the communities belonged to the regional administration of Weser-Ems, which was dissolved on this date, due to an administrative reform.
Religious denomination in the Overledingerland is an important aspect. The majority of the people in Overledingen are Protestant. In the vicinity of the Ems there are a number of reformed communities, otherwise the Lutheran belief prevails. Occasionally you also find Free Churches or Catholics. A rather strong denominational divide runs along the south, towards the Emsland, and along the east, towards the Oldenburgian Münsterland where there are mainly Catholic areas.

4. Modern development and planning

In its environmental planning report for 2005 the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning considered the Overledingerland to be a region which is marked by increasing population and by employment due to growth. This development leads to great demands on space and subsequent increase in traffic.

4.1 Land use
The Overledingerland has the features of a plantation-landscape, shaped by unfavourable natural and economic conditions of production. In view of the intensive agricultural use of the river marshland it is anticipated that the process of farm expansion will continue to the disadvantage of other farms. The majority of the agricultural marshes are on the banks of the rivers Leda and Jümme, however the less fertile Geest-ridge with its peatland-areas is mainly used for peat digging. At present the number of people employed in agriculture is under 14% and will decline even further in the future. This development is to be seen in the light of intensifying agriculture, which will result in larger farms and the adaptation of areas to conform to these economic constraints.
An essential basis for the preservation of the peatlands in Lower Saxony was created in 1981 and 1986 in the form of the peatland protection programme, the aims of which have been put into practise continuously since that time. The peatland protection programme was broadened with the evaluation by experts of nature protection of the peatlands. The aims of the peatland protection programme are: the protection of the peatlands as nature protection areas, the restoration to their natural state which has been stripped industrially, the protection of all the smallest peatlands and the remains of peatlands by the designation of buffer zones and the protection of the valuable raised bog grassland. Particularly worth mentioning is peatland used in agriculture as a buffer zone, for linking biotops and raised bog grassland as a special living space with a long-term development potential.

4.2 Settlement development
Fehn villages are the traditional rural settlement-forms of the 19th century that you find in the Overledingerland. The linear settlements, in which the peat-cutters settled along the transport- and drainage-routes, are characteristic for the region. Those ordinary labourers and farm girls, who worked as peat-cutters could not profit from the fruits of their labours. On the contrary: an old saying is: “Death to the first, poverty to the second, bread to the third” ("Den Eersten sien Dod, den Tweeten sien Not, den Drütten sien Brod"). Only after numerous generations can you see economic improvement and wealth, resulting in better quality houses being built. Thus the “Kübbing”-houses, a special form of bi-sectional house, so valuable in the cultural history of the area, developed, which contrast with the gulf-houses further north. However, along the Ems, scattered villages dominate, which are able to profit from the agriculture in the river marshes.
Nowadays the administrative district of Leer is characterised by a relatively low population-density of only 90 inhabitants per km². The building of the motorway A31 also simplified and improved the accessibility to the Overledingerland, although the motorway does not run directly in the catchment area. As far as Germany is concerned Overledingen is in a peripheral position although it is by no means an isolated area and commuter traffic to Emden and Leer is limited.
In terms of tourist facilities and attractions the Overledingerland is less attractive than neighbouring regions. The region belongs to the Ems-Hümmling area, which boasts generally fewer visitors than the Friesian coast. The reasons for this are the geographical location, the lack of contact to the North Sea, combined with relatively small communities and consequently the lack of a tourist focus in the region. Overledingen has neither a provincial nor a trans-regional museum. Regional museums exist in Esklum, Ihrhove and Rhauderfehn. In addition two to three monasteries can be visited, among them the monastery of Muhde. There are points of tourist interest in the region to be seen, but they are isolated points.

4.3 Industry and energy
No important industrial sites are located in the Overledingerland; Emden and Leer are more important in this respect; however only vehicle building is of importance here. In addition there are gas-pipelines, which run west-east, from Groningen to Oldenburg, Bremen and Hamburg. The numerous wind farms, which have changed the original face of the flat landscape radically, are amongst recent developments.

4.4 Infrastructure
The traditional traffic of the Overledingerland was by means of water and road. The Ems, as a federal waterway up to the estuary, is still used regularly. Many canals and inlets, which formerly used to be used for shipping peat dug in the peatlands, are nowadays used by motorboats and pleasure cruisers.

Moreover Westoverledingen is on the B70, an old army road, connecting East Frisia with the Emsland and the Münsterland. Otherwise there are no important arterial roads in the Overledingerland. Only the federal road B438 runs from north to south through the region. It is, however, important to mention the motorway connection, which links Overledingen to the transportation-network of Lower Saxony and the rest of Germany, by the completion of the A31 through the Rheiderland. This is clearly visible in the mobility of the inhabitants of Overledingen, who can reach Germany’s arterial routes quickly, just as they can to the Dutch A7 to Groningen.
Overledingen’s rail-connection to the railway line from Emden to Münster was already built by 1854. This line runs approximately parallel to the B70.

5. Legal and spatial planning aspects

Administratively the Overledingerland is divided into the communities, Westoverledingen, Rhauderfehn and Ostrhauderfehn, the Nettelburg area of the town of Leer, which are all subordinate to the administrative district of Leer.
The largest place is the town of Ihrhove. The community results from the merger of numerous communities under the administrative-reform of Lower Saxon in 1973. Up to the 31st of December 2004 all the communities belonged to the regional administration of Weser-Ems, today they are in the administrative district of Leer.

According to the regional planning programme of Lower Saxony Overledingen is considered as a weakly structured area without centres. The next medium-sized centres are Leer and Emden. From a regional planning point-of-view Overledingen belongs to Regional Structure Conference of East Frisia (Ostfriesische Landschaft), which however has not set up a development plan for the area yet. The Regional Council of East Frisian Area extends over the entire governmental district (administrative districts of Wismund, Aurich, Emden and Leer). Additionally there are outline plans for the area and plans concerned with the utilisation of land of the communities as well as the development plan for the coastal line of Lower Saxony (ROKK).

6. Vulnerabilities

6.1 Settlement
The historic settlement pattern is important within this area and is vulnerable to the threat from development which alters their original layout. The historic farmsteads are already vulnerable to change of use away from traditional agricultural production. In the area of the Jümminger Hammrich between the Leda and the Jümme the historic cultural landscape has survived largely in its traditional form. The typical appearance of the culture landscape with its right-angled road and drainage systems, the linear villages and embankment-hedges survives, even though these structures are being overlaid by new estates and commercial areas. The loss of the legibility of this historical landscape and use becomes more and more evident and runs contrary to the preservation of this cultural landscape.

6.2 Agriculture
In view of international competition, the pressure to use all land optimally, resulting from globalisation, will mean adjusting the means of agricultural production to economic constraints. In this context the agricultural use of the marsh areas is problematical, as the areas are fragmented by numerous ditches and drains. An additional factor is the reduced deployment of yield increasing measures in accordance with the European RAM acre-guideline. The enlargement of the areas of production leads to many farms being abandoned and to the disappearance of traditional, small farms.

6.3 Nature conservation
Due to the increase of environmental awareness amongst the public the peat industry is driving forward projects to re-moisten, to regenerate, or to use the former turf-extraction areas for agriculture or for forestry. There is the possibility that surviving cultural historic assets will not be taken into consideration when these conservation programmes are being planned.

6.4 Industry and energy
The increase in renewable energy production, such as wind farms, has a significant impact on the historic open landscape. These changes to the landscape have a negative effect on both the natural and cultural-historic landscape of Overledingerland.

7. Potentials

7.1 Settlement
The historic settlement pattern and its associated landscape is important within this area and has potential for being a resource to encourage tourism. Careful integration of the cultural heritage into planning proposals provides the potential both for the preservation and management of the historic settlements. In the area of the Jümminger Hammrich between the Leda and the Jümme the historic cultural landscape has survived largely in its traditional form. The typical appearance with its right-angled road and drainage systems, the linear villages and embankment-hedges survives providing the opportunity to promote and protect the historic settlement pattern and its associated landscape.

7.2 Agriculture
The Overledingerland has so far maintained its settlement and landscape use adjusted to life in the Northern Lower Saxony. The so-called peat digging areas and the intensive agriculture in the pastures alongside the rivers form the historic land use. The historic culture and tradition of the Overledingerland can be explained and displayed by the surviving historic landscape elements integrated with the museums of the area.

7.3 Tourism
There is an opportunity to diversify the already existing tourism trade and its products by offering walks and excursions. The museums provide the potential source for bringing Overledingen’s history to life for the tourist industry and local population.

7.4 Nature conservation
The attempts at recreation of wet lands and moorland provide the opportunity to both integrate and manage the cultural history of the area. There is potential for the cultural heritage to be incorporated within management plans in those areas protected as nature reserves as well as those attempting to be recreated by the peat cutting industry.

7.5 Infrastructure
Within Overledingerland there is good linkage in the regional and trans-regional transport infrastructure as well as in a growing tourist infrastructure. There is the potential to exploit this infrastructure to promote the cultural heritage of the area to the more touristic areas to the north.

8. Sources

Author: Meike Levin

Behre, K.-E. (1995): Die Entstehung und Entwicklung der Natur- und Kulturlandschaft der ostfriesischen Halbinsel. In: K.-E. Behre, K.-E. & van Lengen, H. (Hrsg.): Ostfriesland. Geschichte und Gestalt einer Kulturlandschaft. Aurich 1995 (durchgesehene 3. Aufl. 1998), 5-36.

Behre, K.-E. (1999): Die Veränderungen der niedersächsischen Küstenlinien in den letzten 3000 Jahren und ihre Ursachen. Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet 26, 1999, 9-33.

Brandt K. (1977): Die Ergebnisse der Grabung in der Marschsiedlung Bentumersiel/Unterems in den Jahren 1971-1973. Probleme der Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet 12, 1977, 1-32.

Bundesamt für Bauwesen und Raumordnung (BBR) (2005): Raumordnungsbericht 2005. Berichte 21, Bonn.

Raumordnungskonzept für das niedersächsische Küstenmeer. Herausgegeben vom Niedersächsischen Ministerium für den ländlichen Raum, Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz – Regierungsvertretung Oldenburg – Landesentwicklung, Raumordnung. Stand 2005.

Schwarz W. (1995): Die Urgeschichte in Ostfriesland. Leer 1995.

Schwarz W. (1995): Archäologische Quellen zur Besiedlung Ostfrieslands im frühen und hohen Mittelalter. In: Behre, K.-E. & van Lengen, H. (Hrsg.): Ostfriesland. Geschichte und Gestalt einer Kulturlandschaft. Aurich 1995 (durchgesehene 3. Aufl. 1998), 75-92.