Cultural Entities 
(The Netherlands)


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1. Overview




Coastal marsh


Approximately 15 x 18 km, 2,700 kmē

Location - map:

Province of Groningen, Nederland

Origin of name:

Named after the river Hunze.

Relationship/similarities with other cultural entities:

The area is comparable to Westergo in Friesland.

Characteristic elements and ensembles:

Hunsingo comprises several Cultural Heritage areas surrounded by former marine bays. Winding ditches trace the courses of former mud flat creeks, and the position of the long lines of dwelling mounds on the salt marsh embankments also indicate the former coastline of the Wadden Sea.

2. Geology and geography

2.1 General
The oldest salt marsh area, which includes Middag-Humsterland, lay above the Pleistocene sandy plains of the Westerkwartier. When the first people arrived c.600 BC, the salt marsh was bordered by a broad coastal embankment at the level of present-day Garnwerd and Zoutkamp. To the south of Garnwerd the coastal embankment gave way to the raised left bank of Hunze. The salt marsh area expanded northward in phases as the seaward salt marshes developed. The gradual rise in sea level meant that the level of the newly-formed salt marshes was always a little higher than the old ones. The Niekerk-Zuurdijk salt marsh embankment was formed roughly between 550 and 50 BC. From 300 to 600 AD the embankment followed the line of Ulrum-Leens-Wehe, while heavy sticky clay was deposited in the area behind it. In the succeeding centuries the coastal area of the region underwent many changes. The Hunze estuary silted up, while the marine bay of the Lauwers began to develop. This dynamic coastal process, in which one bay became land as another bay developed, is typical of the northern coastal area. Incursions from the Lauwerszee from the 7th century, changed the salt marsh area into islands and peninsulas, separated by streams. One of these streams reached the lower reaches of the Hunze, which then, instead of flowing north, struck off to the west. This part of the Hunze became known as the Reitdiep. Light clay was deposited on the islands and peninsulas. The old mouth of the Hunze was finally cut off entirely by the salt marsh embankment of Pieterburen and Westernieland.

2.2 Present landscape
Due to the dikes the Hunsingo landscape is now unaffected by the sea, the area having lost its dynamism when the Lauwers was cut off. The dikes on the Wadden coast were brought up to the delta level, and all tidal action ceased. The open landscape is characterised by its many dikes and meandering waterways.

Dykes in Hunsingo Landscape in Hunsingo

3. Landscape and settlement history 

3.1 Prehistoric and Medieval Times

The salt marshes were first inhabited around 600 BC. Initially the farmers living on the higher sandy land used the salt marshes as summer pasture. Later people were drawn by the fertile clay soils to settle permanently on the salt marshes, choosing the highest points for their farmhouses. The embankments along the Hunze were the most suitable for settlement. The first settlements were along a line running from Adorp, Winsum, and Baflo to Warffum, and another from Dorkwerd, Garnwerd and Ezinge to Houwerzijl. Around 500 BC the area suffered increased flooding. This heralded the first phase of the raising of dwelling mounds, using household waste, manure and salt marsh turf.

Map of dwelling mounds

Farms were built on the flanks of the mounds, with the living area towards the centre and the working areas lower down. This made it easy to move between the farm buildings and the surrounding pastures. Sometimes an 'ox road' was created at the foot of the village mound to connect up the different farms. A well would be dug at the top of the mound to provide water for drinking and fire fighting. The region of dwelling mounds - wierden - flourished in Roman times, leading to population growth and increasing demand for land.

Photo: Ox-road in Niehove

3.2 Early Modern Times
Until around 1000 AD the mound dwellers tried to ward off the threat of flooding by increasing the height of the mounds. After that date they began to build dikes, not just around the villages, but also to protect the surrounding agricultural land from inundation with seawater. But the dikes brought problems as well as benefits. They made it more difficult to drain off excess water.
In Hunsingo the history of reclamation began with the construction of ring dikes around the old agricultural villages. The first dikes were built around the centres / core areas of Middag and Humsterland in the eleventh or twelfth century. The Marne area, to the north of the Reitdiep, is also thought to have had a ring dike. The oldest continuous sea dike along the North Groningen coast dates back to around 1200. When the dike was built the original mouth of the Hunze was already entirely silted up.
The construction of the dike in turn led to the development of new settlements, which were not on mounds, and owed their existence to the proximity of the dike itself, a drainage sluice, or a road. It was not unusual for roads to be built on the remains of an old dike. Villages built beside discharging sluices (zijlen) include Schouwerzijl, Houwerzijl, Munnikezijl, Kommerzijl, Lauwerzijl, Niezijl en Pieterzijl. Dike villages in the region include Den Andel, Den Ham, Kleine Huisjes, Kloosterburen, Molenrij, Pieterburen, Den Hoorn, Westernieland/Kaakhorn and Zuurdijk.

Village of Niehove Village of Houwerzijl

The Medieval period saw the development of the settlement pattern which still characterises the landscape today. Only a few villages and neighbourhoods have been created since then, in response to new reclamation works. In the eighth century the Ommelanden (the surrounding area) of Groningen was converted to Christianity. This led to the building of a church in the centre of many of the mound villages, often in the place of the former source of drinking water, the dobbe (well). In a number of cases a small ditch was dug around the churchyard of the mound to replace the well. The well could only be replaced once the villagers had secured another adequate source of fresh water. Thus the construction of the churches and the disappearance of the wells must have been after the dikes were built, when there was enough fresh water in the ditches.
The advent of Christianity also brought monasteries to the region: Selwerd, Kloosterburen, Nijenklooster and Aduard. Of these, the Cistercian Aduard monastery, founded in 1192, was the most influential. The monks and lay brothers worked on the surrounding land and introduced water management. It is thought that the monks contributed to the dike building around Middag and Humsterland.

Monasteries in Humsterland Map of Humsterland

A new dike required good drainage, and the Aduarderdiep was dug to drain off the excess rainwater in Hunsingo, it discharged through a sluice into the Reitdiep. It was the Aduard monks who took the initiative to set up the zijlvesten or sluice committees: fourteenth and fifteenth century water boards run by the abbot.
Little is known about medieval agriculture in the region, but we can assume that the farms throughout the region were mixed (livestock and arable). Presumably the low-lying areas like Middag and Humsterland were more suited to livestock farming, whereas in the north, particularly on the fairly high salt marsh embankments, there would be more arable. Production was intensified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Photo: Farming in Middag-Humsterland

3.3 Modern Times
From around 1700 the accretion process was accelerated by land reclamation works. The Noordpolder was drained in 1811, followed by the Uithuizerpolder (1827), the Eemspolder (1876), the Lauwerpolder (1892), the Julianapolder (1924) and finally the Linthorst Homanpolder (1940). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries several areas were reclaimed around the estuary of the Reitdiep in the Lauwerszee, such as the Zuurdijkster polders and the Old and New Ruigezandster polders.

Photo: The Noordpolder (Middendijk)

The Reitdiep, which provided access from Groningen to the sea, is the most important waterway in Hunsingo, but its meandering course proved difficult for shipping. To improve the situation some of the more extreme meanders to the west of Winsum (1629) and Sauwerd (1669) were cut off. The old riverbed, called het Oude Diepje, is still recognisable in the landscape as a channel with a continuous broad ditch.
Many of the old fortified houses (borgen) have disappeared. Some estates are still recognisable in the shape of canals and planting. Sometimes there is now a farm of the same name in place of the former estate house; for example de Aldringaheert at Feerwerd, and de Englumheerd and Jensema at Oldehove. Surviving borgen include Verhildersum at Leens, Allersma at Ezinge and Piloursema at Den Ham.

Map of fortified houses (borgen) in Hunsingo Photo: Fortified house Allersma

Large-scale commercial levelling works between 1840 and 1945 left practically none of the dwelling mounds intact. The fertile soil from the mounds was used to fertilise agricultural areas elsewhere. The existing waterway access was used to transport the soil, although in one instance a new waterway was dug especially. Some of the mounds were completely levelled, others only partially. In the latter case clear differences in height became increasingly apparent between the dug and undug elements.

The brick industry grew up around the Reitdiep and is typical of the region. The heavy, lime-free claypan soil deposited between 300 and 600 AD was the ideal raw material for the typical red Groningen brick.
From the start of the 19th century the ?agriculturalist?s method? was used for reclamation, whereby pits were dug in the salt marsh to collect silt. During the mass unemployment in 1935 land reclamation work was stepped up: dams were built of wicker and posts to enclose areas of 400 by 400 metres.

The farmers on the seaward side had a legal right to take possession of the first 300 metres of the newly-reclaimed land, and the first option to buy the next. The main aim was to obtain extra land for agriculture. Polders formed by land reclamation in recent centuries include the Negenboeren, Juliana and Hornhuister polders. Changing economic requirements and increasing environmental concern for the Wadden Sea have brought land reclamation to a halt.

Polder Negenboeren

4. Modern development and planning

4.1 Land use
The land was predominantly used for agriculture. In recent decades more land has been required for nature development, and the area around the Lauwersmeer has many hectares of new nature reserves.

4.2 Settlement development
The settlements have remained small. There has been only limited expansion, except the places Winsum and Zuidhorn. The village Pieterburen has become a tourist centre because of the seal centre and as a starting point of a long distant footpath called Pieterpad.

4.3 Industry and energy
The closure of the Lauwerszee in 1969 meant the end of the fish auction in Zoutkamp. The harbour activities have moved to Lauwersoog. Groningen is known for natural gas extraction. The largest natural gas deposit in the region is at Grijpskerk. Gas extraction has led to subsidence, particularly in the east, where more water now has to be pumped away.

4.4 Infrastructure
Many roads are built on the winding routes of the old dikes and connect the 'wierdedorpen'. Due to its isolated position the area has no major roads.

5. Legal and spatial planning aspects

The Legal and Spatial Planning Aspects are described here in a generalised way, as they are relevant to all the cultural entities in the province of Groningen. Due to the scale of the entities (which cover more then one municipality), the focus is on regional policy and management. However, the goals of the regional policy and planning strategy are taken into account by the local sector planning policy. The regional goals and strategies are formulated after discussion with a wide range of stakeholders and organisations.

The regional spatial plan for the province of Groningen, the Provinciaal Omgevingsplan II, is an important document in terms of the integrated management of the landscape and heritage. It details the objectives for regional and local policy, and issues relating to landscape and heritage. Part of the Groningen regional plan, the Karakteristiek Groningen, covers the main goals for integrated landscape and heritage policy. The actual (historical) landscapes must be taken as the starting point for new developments and the diversity of landscapes must remain recognisable. These main goals are subsequently incorporated into other plans, dealing with specific parts of the province.

Regioperspectieven (long term perspectives for a region) are drawn up for the sub-regions. These perspectives culminate in gebiedsuitwerkingen (development plans for specific sub-regions). For example, the Landschapsontwikkelingsplan Noord Groningen (Landscape Development Plan for N. Groningen) deals with protection of the landscape and heritage and the integration of new developments. These plans are drawn up in consultation with the main sectors and various local and regional organisations (public bodies and NGOs).

6. Vulnerabilities

6.1 Settlement
Following the destruction of many of the dwelling mounds during the large scale levelling programmes from the 1840?s through to 1945 the few surviving dwelling mounds need to be carefully protected.

6.2 Agriculture
Agricultural pratices have resulted in the loss of structures such as the old fortified houses and the destruction of many earthworks, in particular dwelling mounds through levelling and ploughing. Cultivation continues to place buried archaeological remains at risk.

6.3 Nature conservation
The new areas of nature reserves such as around the Lauwersmeer can cause damage to cultural heritage assets if these are not considered at an early stage in the management plans for the reserves.

6.4 Industry and energy
Gas extraction has led to subsidence in some areas and this will cause erosion and damage to cultural heritage assets.

7. Potentials

7.1 Spatial planning

The regional spatial plan for the province of Groningen, the Provinciaal Omgevingsplan II, is an important document in terms of integrated management of landscape and heritage and should be used to both promote and manage the cultural heritage assets of Hunsingo.

7.2 Settlement
The varying pattern of the historic villages and towns is mostly intact and protected. However there is the opportunity via planning requirements to promote the historic environment through careful development in the appropriate style for each settlement.

Photo: Village of Garnwerd

7.3 Agriculture
Nature conservation offers opportunities to integrate conservation of the natural environment and historic landscape to provide further attractions to cyclists, walkers and riders. The areas cultural heritage is well-suited for increasing the local resident?s sense-of-place and for strengthening Hulsingo?s image for marketing purposes.

Photo: Dwelling mound (terp) village Ezinge

7.4 Management of cultural heritage
Hulsingo has a rich archaeological heritage from the prehistoric period onwards with the large number of dwelling mounds fortified houses and estates, villages and dykes, mostly now surviving only as below ground archaeological deposits, or visible in the layout of the landscape.

7.5 Tourism
The surviving small dwelling mound (wierde) villages (some of which have protected status) like Eenrum, Winsum, Obergum, Oostum, Garnwerd, Ezinge, Saaksum and Niehove, in particular those with old Romanesque churches set amongst lakes, are ideal for promoting the cultural heritage of the region.

8. Sources

Marrewijk, D & A.J. Haartsen, 2002, Waddenland Het landschap en cultureel erfgoed in de Waddenzeeregio, Ministerie van Landbouw, Natuurbeheer en Visserij / Noordboek, Leeuwarden
Provincie Groningen, 2000, Provinciaal Omgevingsplan, Koersen op Karakter, Groningen