From forest, to a prosperous polder, to a desolate intertidal area: Saeftinghe has changed much under the influence of the sea. It is not only the storms and floods that have shaped the landscape, but also the changes in sea level. Through archaeological research it has been discovered that Saeftinghe has been inhabited on and off throughout its history.
7000BC – Sea levels 25m lower than they are today
The ice age has just passed, but it is still ice cold and there are continuous sandstorms. The landscape is bare and tundra-like, with whole areas of land covered in drift-sand - this is how sand ridges come to be. As the climate grows milder, poplars, birches and pines start growing on the once treeless plains where rivers meander through the landscape. The earliest inhabitants leave traces such as arrowheads and flint stone.
4000BC – Sea levels are 5m lower than they are today
The area is getting wetter and the swamps and alder forests are taking over. Swamp plants die off in the autumn and sink. Since there is not enough oxygen in the swamps for the plant material to decompose, it turns into peat. People start inhabiting the higher drift-sand ridges and get their food from the swamps: game, wildfowl, fish, nuts, berries, roots and fruit. Close to their settlements they create arable fields and raise cattle. From this time period, people will leave pottery fragments.
2000BC – Sea levels are 2.5m lower than they are today
The sea level keeps rising and the peat layers forming either side of the sand ridges are growing. The sand ridges themselves do not always flood and remain raised above the growing swamps. The water level has now risen too high for inhabitants, and the people have abandoned the area in search of higher ground. On the higher areas heather is starting to grow and in the wetter areas plants such as cranberry, sundew and cotton-sedge establish themselves. The peat keeps growing and will end up several meters thick in Saeftinghe.
1000AC – Sea level as it is today
The rising sea level turns the area into a mosaic of salt flats, creeks and mud flats. Due to the regular influx of saltwater, the build up of peat comes to an end. The peat is drenched in saltwater and the strong currents create gullies and creeks through the peat layer. These creeks drain the peat layer and, as a result, it settles and compacts. Now the peat floods even more regularly and, because it gets covered with sand and clay, it subsides even further. Shepherds discover the large salt flats and create small settlements on the high levees. From this period graves, dug out of the peat and lined with poles, will be discovered.
1500AC – sea level as it is today
The salt flats get increasingly higher and Flemish monks start to build sea walls (from the 13th century onwards) in order to claim land from the sea. In the 14th century the Land of Saeftinghe reaches the largest it has been. There are people living in the villages of Saeftinghe, Casuwele, Namen and Sint Laureins. Agriculture, cattle and trade in peat and salt bring wealth to the area. The towers of Saeftinghe’s castle stand proud above the rest of the land, and the owner collects tolls from the ships on their way to Antwerp.
Storm floods breach the sea walls regularly, and whole areas of Saeftinghe disappear into the waves. Following the massive floods in 1570 and 1574 the seawalls are repaired and Saeftinghe remained inhabited.
However, the people purposely flooded the polders during a war with the Spanish, in which the catholic Spanish wanted to subdue the Calvinistic Dutch. In 1584, Dutch forces breached the seawalls to prevent the Spanish from reaching Antwerp. It flooded a massive area, but was all in vain because Antwerp fell into the hands of the Spanish in 1585. Saeftinghe was reclaimed by the sea.
Now – 2000AC – Sea level is rising
In the 20th century, the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe is 2.5-3m above sea level: more ready than ever to be reclaimed from the sea once more. But the Second World War and the following re-building of the country prevented any such plans coming to fruition. After the 60’s, with increasing wealth and leisure time, there was growing interest and appreciation for the value of nature and the environment. Saeftinghe became a protected nature reserve: 3600 hectares of brackish intertidal habitat – it is the largest of its kind in Europe!