Professor Van Giffen and the Mysterie of the 'Wierden'

13 July 2005

From 17 December 2005 to 9 April 2006, the Groninger Museum will be staging the exhibition ‘Professor Van Giffen and the Mystery of the Wierden’. The exhibition focuses on the most important Dutch archaeologist of the twentieth century and former curator of the Groninger Museum, Professor Dr A.E. van Giffen, and his research into the wierden (ancient dwelling mounds).

The Groninger Museum has one of the largest collections in the Netherlands of antiquities from the wierden (also called terpen). This collection was the incentive for the foundation of the Groninger Museum in 1874. The exhibition draws fresh attention to this important component of the Museum’s overall collection. Displaying a wealth of original objects and visual material, it will illustrate the development of the archaeology of the wierden, and also show Van Giffen’s great influence upon archaeology and the advance in knowledge for which he was responsible.

Dr A.E. Van Giffen (1884-1973)
Van Giffen began to unravel the mysteries of the wierden in 1908 while still a student. He was trained as a biologist and was quick to realize the significance of soil features. His scientific knowledge enabled him to move archaeology forward to a far greater extent than would have been possible by the established antiquarian approach. In addition to his study of the coastal wierden, Van Giffen was active throughout the Netherlands and even abroad: in France, Hungary, Ireland and Germany. Founded by him in 1922, Van Giffen’s base was the Biological-Archaeological Institute at the University of Groningen. His excavations covered almost all archaeological periods, ranging from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages. He was particularly interested in megalithic tombs (in Dutch: hunebedden) and burial mounds. He is rightly referred to as the ‘founding father’ of modern Dutch archaeology. His study of the wierden had a follow-up in northern Germany with the foundation of the Niedersächsisches Institut für historische Küstenforschung at Wilhelmshaven.

Around the 5th century BC, the salt-marsh along the sea coast of Groningen, Friesland, and the adjoining part of northern Germany had risen by accretion and had become suitable for human habitation, although there were no dikes at that time. As the sea level gradually rose, bringing more frequent flooding, people began to bank up their farmsteads and the surrounding ground. This process eventually resulted in large mounds or wierden. In the first few centuries AD, the wierden region came into the sphere of influence of the Roman Empire. In the fifth century AD, migrant tribes arrived from northern Germany and southern Denmark. In the 8th century, the area was conquered by the Franks, and in the 9th century Vikings arrived on the scene. Throughout all these centuries, the threat from the sea remained a constant factor. It was only around the 11th century that the inhabitants began to exclude the sea systematically by means of a series of interconnected dikes. Although no longer necessary for survival, living high and dry on the wierden has continued right up to the present day.

The exhibition was realized in cooperation with scientists and academics from, among others, the University of Groningen, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden, the Fryske Akademie, TNO Built Environment and Geosciences (Netherlands Geological Survey), and Noordelijk Archeologisch Depot Nuis. Exhibits on loan have come from both home and abroad, with the Fries Museum making a major contribution.

Note for the editor:
Compilation of the exhibition in the Groninger Museum: Egge Knol and Mark Wilson For more information, please contact: Josee Selbach,, +31 (0)50-3666555,

Hours of opening: Tuesday to Sunday and on public holidays, from 10.00-17.00. Also open on Mondays in July and August, from 13.00-17.00. Closed on all other Mondays and on 25 December and 1 January.