Already in the Iron Age, from 500 BC, people lived in these peat marshes. Their farms have been excavated by archaeologists in the area to the west of Assendelft. During the Roman period, some 2000 years ago, the water rose and the land became unsuitable for farming. The people took refuge on the higher, sandy strip by the sea.
Around the year 900, these coastal lands became overcrowded. The oak forests had been cut down, resulting in the sand covering the arable land. By that time, the peat marshes were not as wet anymore and pioneers started to set up farms there. They dug long, parallel canals from the higher grounds to the natural creeks and rivers. This provided firm and rich soil, fit for agriculture.
Unfortunately, peat tends to oxidate rather quickly when dehydrated. As a consequence, the land sank and within a century it was as wet as it had been before. The farmers moved their business up the peat slope, this time ending their canals in a ditch at a right angle, using the dug-up soil to form a dike against the water of the peat marshes above. This resulted in the landscape we still see today: reclaimed peat land, characterised by hundreds of long, narrow ditches for the discharge of water. Along the dykes at the high end, the stretched ribbon villages, so typical of the region, grew to amazing lengths.
The first Assendelft was founded around the year 950. Archaeologists managed to find the small church that stood at the centre of it. The present ribbon village is about a century younger. It was first officially mentioned in 1063, as ‘Ascmannedilf’ (‘dug by the axe-people’, who some believe may have been the descendants of Vikings).
The other villages in the Zaan region were founded sometime later in a similar way, although not all of them were founded by people from the coast. It wasn’t before the nineteenth century that the people of the region started to develop a sense of “togetherness”.