Schokland and Erosion

14 Jun 2017

I followed a narrow nine-kilometre branch canal to Ens and moored in the small basin at its end. This cul-de-sac is in the middle of nowhere about five metres below sea level on the bottom of the former Zuiderzee. I had come here because it's only a four kilometre pedal from Schokland.


Schokland is a former island, and it has a long and complex history. The landform, a low rock and gravel ridge, was one of the banks of the ancient River Vecht, and it originated as a glacial esker at the end of the last ice age. It was home to wooly rhinoceros, aurochs, mammoths, Irish elk and European bison. In the museum are displays of remains of many of these.


As the ice receded, the ridge became the occasional home to roaming hunters and fishermen. There is evidence of encampments ten thousand years ago, though more permanent settlement of the area dates from about sixty-five hundred years ago. Archeological finds show that Roman armies camped on this ridge, and a significant discovery here is this bronze spearhead, the only one ever found in the Netherlands.

With the gradual inundation of the low lands and the formation of the Zuiderzee, the area around Schokland became marsh, and eventually sea by the end of the fourteenth century. The ridge had become an island. The inhabitants had been harvesting peat from the surrounding land, which had caused its further subsidence. 


Schokland was low and its farm land gradually disappeared, leaving little but the gravel ridge. Diking and draining were attempted, but the sea could not be held back, and the island continued to erode. 


The written history of the Schokkers begins about five hundred years ago. For most of its history, the island continued to diminish, its hillocks and dikes being washed away during storms. The few hundred inhabitants retreated to small clusters of buildings on the eastern side of the island. Soon there was little more than three tiny settlements, Emmeloord, Molenbuurt, and Middelbuurt and some protective dikes. 


By the middle of the nineteenth century, the population had become severely inbred and impoverished, and seventy-five percent of the islanders were on welfare. By Royal decree in 1859, King William III ordered the island evacuated and the residents distributed among many communities along the Zuiderzee coast.


With the diking and draining of the area and the creation of the Noordoostpolder in 1942, the island was reclaimed from the sea. In 1995 Schokland became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Netherlands. 


Today the former waterfront of Middelbuurt appears as an island in a sea of potato fields. The splendid small museum there tells the story much better than I can here.

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