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Exploring dolmens in the Netherlands
You have probably heard about Stonehenge in England and the menhirs in France. But did you know, that here in the Netherlands, we have something older called the dolmens, and there are fifty-three of them?
The stones of these dolmens were left behind after the penultimate ice age and weigh up to 40 tons each.
Dolmens are mainly in the province of Drenthe (North-East Netherlands) while one is in the adjacent province of Groningen. In Dutch these dolmens are called hunebedden. The word stems from the old Dutch word “huyne” which meant giant, as for many centuries people believed that these megaliths were built by giants.
Thanks to modern archaeology, we now know that hunebedden are graves and were built in the new Stone Age.
Origin of hunebedden
About 5000 years ago, between 3400- B.C -2850 B.C., farmers in the North-East of the Netherlands lived in small communities in extended forests in wooden houses. They grew wheat and had cattle. In a central place in the area, they built common graves, now known as hunebedden. In the graves, earthenware has been found in the shape of a funnel. Therefore, archaeologists say that these people belong to the Funnel Beaker Culture.
Restoration of hunebedden
For many centuries, people used the stones from the hunebedden for all kind of purposes, such as building churches, protecting dikes or marking the borders of a property. In the 18th century the local government realised the error of this and that the hunnebedden should be protected and conserved for the future. From the end of the 19th century, the national government and the province of Drenthe ,own all the hunebedden. In 1918 is appears that the condition of the hunebedden are very bad and the government assigns a special person to supervise the protection and conservation of them. Since then, a lot of research has been done and many of the hunebedden have been restored in such a way that it is clear which parts are older and which parts have been restored.A hunebed near the village Schoonoord: before and after restoration
Building process of the hunebedden
Although it is not scientifically established, it is likely that the building process of a hunebed was as follows:
- Collecting megalith stones which were placed on wooden rollers or sleighs by means of levers , using manpower and oxen.
- Building an earthen dam. Two rows of standing side stones were placed in pits against the dam, secured by cobbles and sand. Both ends were closed by stones at their respective ends.
- Building a hill of sand -The capstones, with the flat side downwards, were dragged to the top of the hill and placed on top of the sidestones. After completion the skeleton of the burial chamber was ready and the sand within could be removed.
- The openings between the stones were filled with smaller boulders and the dry masonry of flattened stones.
- On the south side an entrance was constructed by 2 or 4 passage sidestones and a passage-capstone.The floor of the chamber was paved with small pebbles and grit.
- The completed chamber was covered by a barrow consisting of sods, sand and cobbles, leaving only the top of the capstones visible. Sometimes the foot of the barrow was strengthened by a oval wreath of smaller boulders.
Nowadays the remaining hunebedden are only the skeletons of the original ones as the cover layer has disappeared.
Visiting the hunebedden
When you visit the hunebedden, the past will come alive. Travelling to Drenthe by car takes 2-3 hours from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague area. Therefore it is best to go there for 2 or more days. It is also really interesing to visit the Hunebedcentrum too (www.hunebedcentrum.eu/en) where you will find several exhibitions, a Stone Age house and a prehistoric garden.
The Hondsrug Geopark (www.geoparkdehondsrug.nl/en/p/expedities) takes you to the places where prehistory comes alive in the present day. You will see the best-preserved hunebedden and other remainings from the prehistory.