About the Megaliths

Hunebed D15 at Loon after a storm

Megalithic monuments are large stone structures found all over the world, from the Middle East to North Africa, in Europe from Spain to Scandinavia, in India and even in the Far East. 'Megalith' comes from the Greek for 'large stones,' and although their age varies, most of the monuments date to the late Neolithic, or 'new stone age' period that began in 3500 BCE. The late Neolithic marks the final stage in the epic transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to the settled agricultural life that is the basis for our own way of life.

My own interest in the megaliths was sparked by an early visit to one of the hunebedden in the Netherlands, where they are found mainly in the province of Drenthe. The hunebedden belong to a type of structure commonly called a dolmen, and they're clustered along the hondsrug ('dog's back'), a long, raised ridge running north to south through the otherwise flat Dutch landscape.

The Dutch megaliths themselves are covered more extensively in the Hunebed Map on this site. Here, I've tried to make some sense of what we know about the hunebedden and why they were built, along with the neolithic revolution to which they belong, and their ongoing grip on our collective imagination.

The Enduring Romance of the Stones

Stonehenge, England

The original function of the dolmens, hunebedden, steingraben and other stone chambers of Europe was to serve the funerary and religious purposes of the late stone age, but they continued to be used by later peoples during the bronze and iron ages that followed. Their imposing aura has inspired countless myths, legends and folklore ever since - including, closer to our own time, reams of academic speculation and mythologizing.

Earlier ages associated the megaliths with giants and dwarves, gods and demons. Then, starting in the middle ages, monuments like Britain's Stonehenge were variously attributed to the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans - and Stonehenge itself was ascribed to Merlin the Magician (who is supposed to have conjured the stones into place from their original location in Ireland), part of a tradition that persisted well into the 19th century that believed them to be the work of the Celtic Druids.

By the early 20th century, archaeological research had established the European monuments to be indigenous, and revealed a pattern of age and continuity for Europe's megalithic heritage. Stonehenge,for example, was built on a site on the Salisbury plain that was already sacred to semi-nomadic builders of earthen barrows when, between 3000 and 2500 BCE, a wave of invading 'Beaker Folk' from what is now the Netherlands and northern Germany introduced a more sophisticated culture in the form of mathematics and a strongly organized communal system, and arranged huge sarsen stones into structures to align with the path of the sun, the solstices and with other natural and manmade features of the ancient landscape. A third phase, in 1500 BCE, further elaborated the rings in astronomical patterns, resulting in the complex structure still visible today.

A gigantic D27 in Celtic Druids 1829

In European folklore, much of which survived into the early 20th century, the stones were often believed to be alive - to move, turn and even dance at midnight on the solstices. They were presumed to have been built by giants and inhabited by dwarves or fairies, and are often thought to contain treasure. Some have curative and other beneficial powers, and even today locals of all religious stripes will treat them with a certain reverence.

In the fever of conversion, Christian missionaries told the pagan locals that the stones they still revered were the work of the devil, with the sad result that many were destroyed. So much of the heritage was lost as stones were carted off by local farmers or broken up to build churches - often on the very same sites. But the church's victory was dubious: In some parts of England, until recent times, going to church was still known as 'going to the stones.'

Willem Roelofs, Tynaarlo 1861

In 18th- and 19th-century Holland, many of the stones pillaged from hunebedden were used to reinforce the dikes when the sea threatened. In a tale that is indicative of the fate of many monuments of all these regions, the north German island of Rügen boasted 229 'giant stone graves' in 1829, but by 1929 a mere 38 survived. The neolithic world was clearly dense with these constructions, and today we are seeing only a few scattered remains.

During the Renaissance, a renewed quest for origins and causes led the emerging European nations to look to the stones as evidence of an ancient pedigree on a par with those of Greece and Rome. The so-called 'giants' were now viewed as the ancestral heroes of the national tribe, and served to legitimize its claim to the landscape.

Along the way, the stones have inspired a rich artistic tradition, from elaborate and fanciful - especially in matters of scale - engravings from the Renaissance, well into the 19th century, when painters from Caspar David Friedrich to the Dutch impressionists of the Hague School like Willem Roelofs brought a mystical sense of the landscape to their romanticized portrayals. With the advent of photography, accuracy may have increased but artistic standards often declined.

The Neolithic Age

Hunebed D17 at Rolde

The neolithic or 'new stone age' period began with the development of agriculture in the Middle East around 10,000 BCE. The great megalithic stone monuments were built during the late neolithic, from about 3500 to 2500 BCE, and in parts of the Mediterranean as late as 800 BCE. By 3000 BCE, most of the well-known sites in Europe were built or well under way, from the dolmens, hunebedden and steingraben of northern Europe to the large ritual centres of Stonehenge, Avebury and Carnac.

The neolithic period was a pivotal point in European cultural development. It saw the shift from a wandering life of hunting and gathering to permanent settlement, farming and cultivation. Stationary livestock, enhanced by deliberate breeding, replaced hunting wandering herds, and breeding seed crops in a single location replaced gathering wild produce. Social systems similar to our own began to emerge with the need for hierarchy, authority and order in these larger settled communities. Bigger groups living continuously in one place - with more leisure time from cultivated food sources - accelerated the development of material culture (pottery, meeting a new need for storage, and other artifacts), social organization in the form of tribal chiefdoms, and also spurred the evolution of language and ideas.

Hunebed D50 at Noord Sleen

Until recently, archaeologists believed the adoption of agriculture and a settled way of life led to the building of the megaliths, but recent research suggests that perhaps the opposite was the case. It now appears possible that the monuments themselves, by transforming the architecture of already-sacred places in a radical new way, brought about the ideological changes necessary to begin the human project of domestication and settlement.

The natural caves, rock formations and earthen mounds of earlier times belonged to a world view that did not distinguish sharply between nature and culture; they were often difficult to separate from their surroundings. The permanence and prominence of megalithic monuments was a clear departure, and symbolized an idea of culture distinct from nature and able to exercise power over it, from the regulation of the seasons to crop and livestock breeding.

Hunebed G1 at Noordlaren

With a new attention to hidden forces linked to the passage of the seasons, fertility and cultivation, the neolithic period crystallized religious and scientific ideas that still haunt our own sense of the cosmos - ideas of cosmic cycles and the afterlife and our relationship to nature. It was the birth of a new age of symbols that increasingly became the actual fabric of social life - and therefore of our very idea of what it is to be human.

But all these developments built on a relationship to patterns of the landscape reaching back to the mesolithic and earlier - and frequently at or near the very same places. And those places have persisted. The foundations of older European churches often reveal remains of megalithic monuments - monuments that are themselves built on burial mounds dating back to camps of the hunter-gatherer period (10,000-5,000 BCE).

The spirit of these places was somehow strong enough to ensure their continued use through thousands of years and many culture changes, and is a key to fully understanding the meaning and significance of the monuments.

The Dutch Hunebedden

The scale and complexity of the Dutch megaliths may not match their more famous relatives at Stonehenge or Carnac or share their astronomical scope, so they're often overlooked even in serious research. Yet they have a quiet, intimate grandeur of their own, nestled atmospherically in groves of gnarled oak trees or ancient pines overlooking the landscape. As pure expressions of the neolithic impulse, they deserve wider attention, especially for their close relationship with the landscape.

The hunebedden being built by an alliance of giants and cunning dwarves, as imagined in an engraving from Johan Picardt's 1660 book, Certain Forgotten and Buried Antiquities of Drenthe. Although still steeped in the mist of legend and folklore, Picardt's work was the first scholarly attempt to make sense of Drenthe's megalithic remains.

Picardt connected the 'steenhopen,' or 'stone heaps', with the national epic of the Frisian peoples of the northern Netherlands and traced them back to remote antiquity, using the biblical genealogy of giants peopling the earth after the flood.

Around the same time, in 1660s Sweden, Olaus Rudbeck connected that country's megaliths with Atlantis and the roots of European civilization.

Hunebedden, roughly equivalent to 'dolmens,' take their name from local folklore, and means 'beds of the Hune' - a name referring to the giants supposed to have built them. In northern Germany the closely related megaliths there are called hunegraben, or 'giants' graves,' and everywhere local legends tell the stories of the giants who built them - and of the dwarves who live in the mounds and subterranean passages they left behind.

The Odyssey of the Stones

Hunebed D15 at Loon

Although historically the stones date back some 5,300 years to the neolithic period, their story begins long before, in the second-to-last ice age (200,000 - 130,000 BCE).

Glaciers from Scandinavia carried massive boulders to north-west Europe, that surfaced when the last ice age receded: The hunebed at Rolde contains 17 distinct varieties of gneiss and granite that have been traced back to Sweden, Finland and the far reaches of the Baltic.

The practice of using these 'glacial erratics' - known in Dutch as zwerfkeien, or 'wandering rocks' - to build monumental passage graves almost follows the original route of the stones themselves, from Sweden, through Denmark and Germany, into the northern Netherlands. The enormous stones can weigh 20 tons or more, and are usually in the typical pattern of the three-stone 'trilithon,' with two upright stones supporting a larger horizontal capstone.

Why Were They Built?

Hunebed D6 at Tynaarlo

The hunebedden were certainly burial places, but they were also ritual centres, a focus for the procession of the seasons and the spirit world of the ancestors. They were prominently positioned in the landscape and deliberately aligned on an east-west axis, along the path of the sun, and oriented to the sunrise at critical points of the solar year. There is some evidence of astronomical alignment.

An entrance portal was on the long south side, and was sealed by a large stone and covered with earth, then re-opened (at some effort) and resealed many times. Remains of offerings are found at the portals, and it seems that the interior was reserved for a spiritual elite while the population at large gathered outside at the entrance.

Hunebed D49: the 'Popeless Church'

The chambers may revive distant memories of the caves of the paleolithic era, serving as the gateway to the mythical underworld of the ancestors - whose bones were carefully arranged (and periodically rearranged) with tools, pottery and sometimes weapons in the chamber below. As in the paleolithic caves, where ritual paintings tend to occur in the most sonically resonant parts of the cave, it is likely that the enclosed stone space of the neolithic passage grave would also be exploited for its acoustic or musical properties, as some studies have suggested.

The hunebedden are encircled by an oval ring of kerbstones that define their ritual boundaries and connect them to the surrounding cosmos. The rings are indented by a portal into the stone passage itself, which consists of a long sunken chamber that was originally covered, except for its capstones, by an earthern mound.

Now all that remains is these stark and solitary stone skeletons, still brooding over the surrounding landscape as they always have.

Epilog: A Dutch Dilemma

Lichen on hunebed D28 at Buinen

The hunebedden are often made with colourful stones, with a seemingly deliberate use of reddish shades for critical capstones and portals. But most of their present colour was never intended by the builders - it comes from the many varieties of lichens that cover their surfaces. Along with the effects of human intrusion, the lichens are taking their toll on the hunbedden, and some archeologists urge that they be removed to save the monuments.

What makes this a particularly painful dilemma for the ecologically minded Dutch is that some of these lichens themselves are now on the endangered species list, and removal could kill them.

So what to do? Save nature and watch a heritage gradually crumble away, or preserve culture at the expense of nature? I'm inclined to let time have its way. As it always has.

Why Megaliths?

My romance with the old stones of Europe goes back to a boyhood visit, organized by my grandfather, to one of the prehistoric stone chambers called hunebedden in the Dutch province of Drenthe.

So it begins: In Bronneger, Drenthe, at hunebed D21 in 1964. I'm perched on top; in front are my mother, aunt Janneske, cousin Anneke and grandfather Sieger. [Photo by my uncle, Klaas Zoutman]

That little outing left a lifelong impression, and spawned visits to the great megalithic remains in England, Brittany and the Balearic Islands. In recent years, I've had a chance to explore the hunebedden in more detail, and also to experience some of their broader context with visits to related monuments in the Emsland across the nearby German border.