Here in Drenthe and Groningen we are very proud of our 54 hunebeds, the only ones to be found in the Netherlands. But not far over the border in Germany there are hundreds of hunebeds scattered across the landscape. A few years ago a scenic drive was designed called the Strasse der Megalithkultur (Megalithic Culture Route), which connected the most impressive hunebeds in the region between Oldenburg, Osnabruck and Meppen. This route is 330 kilometres long and consists of 33 ‘Stations’. These are places which are described in an accompanying travel guide and shown on a map and on an English-language website (http://www.strassedermegalithkultur.de/en). The individual “Stations” are described on another English-language website:
I decided it would be interesting to follow this route and to do it in stages. This first article looks at the hunebeds around Oldenburg, particularly those in the Naturpark Wildeshauser Geest (see the map above). By using the travel guide (only available in German) and the map and looking out for the distinctive brown road signs, the route is easy to follow.
The most famous hunebeds in this region are undoubtedly the Visbeker Brautigam (Visbek Bridegroom) and the Opfertisch (Pagan Offering Table). They lie close together near the village of Visbek and can easily be visited by walking from the Landgasthof Engelmannsbake restaurant (address: Engelmannsbäke 31, 49429 Visbek).
Hunebed 1 – Heidenopfertisch or Offering Table (Station 24b on the Megalithic Culture Route)
3 minutes walk through a lovely old oak woodland brings you to the first hunebed for today, the Heidenopfertisch (Offering Table).
This hunebed is famous because it has been painted so many times by artists, for instance by Ludwig Philipp Strack in 1827. The burial chamber here is 2.5 by 10 metres. Of the original 3 capstones, 2 are still present. One of these counts among one of the largest in Germany, measuring 5 by 7 metres and 1.2 metres thick.
Hunebed 2 – (Visbeker Brautigam) or the Visbek Bridegroom (Station 24a on the Megalithic Culture Route)
A short distance away is a very large complex of hunebeds. Originally consisting of 170 stones, the ‘bridegroom’ is today far and away the largest megalithic construction in Lower Saxony with a length of 104 metres and a width of 8-9 metres. 130 of the enormous stones still remain. In the 19th century this hunebed still stood in an open heathland landscape. Four other monuments lie very close to this enormous grave.
Of the four other hunebeds lying close by, the first that you see is the ‘Bruidswagen’ or Bride’s Carriage.
Hunebed 3 – Kleinenkneten (Station 25 on the Megalithic Culture Route)
There are three hunebeds here by Kleinenkneten but the most famous is a reconstruction. In the early 1930’s this hunebed was still almost entirely covered with earth, and between 1934 and 1939 it was investigated by archaeologists. Unfortunately during the Second World War part of the scientific documentation from the dig went missing. Among objects discovered in the burial chamber were ceramic vases, stone axes and arrowheads as well as amber beads. In fact it was obvious from the small number of archaeological finds remaining from the original grave goods that the chamber had already been opened by grave robbers.
After the excavations this hunebed was reconstructed using the latest state-of-the-art methods known at the time. Some of the capstones of the burial chamber were missing, and were replaced during the reconstruction by concrete blocks.
Long Barrow of Kleinenkneten
Close to the reconstructed hunebed is an impressive long barrow or ‘langgraf’ (similar to the one close to Emmen in the Hondsrug region). This is the only tomb in Lower Saxony which has three chambers. Hunebeds normally have only one chamber. What is unusual here is the middle third chamber, which only came to light during excavations. As the chamber is built with stones which are clearly much smaller, it is assumed that this chamber was added at a later date. During the excavation ceramic vases were found, including typical grave goods such as funnel beakers and smaller bottle-shaped beakers made of clay with several spouts.
Hunebed 4 – Bargeloy Stone Cist (Station 27b on the Megalithic Culture Route)
This Stone Cist, built of large stones, is a very rare type of grave in North West Germany and probably dates from the Bronze Age (between 1800 and 1600 BC). This cist most probably served as a burial place for a number of different people. Just like the megalithic tombs from the Stone Age, this large tomb measuring 2 by 1.5 metres was also covered with a mound of sand. Despite the relatively modest size of this cist, it was the site of some very important finds during excavations in 1820, such as a bronze sword, a bracelet, bronze nails and heart-shaped arrowheads made of flint. The objects can now be seen in the Landesmuseum in Oldenburg.
Hunebed 5 – Visbek Bride (Station 28a on the Megalithic Culture Route)
The Visbek Bride (Visbeker Braut) is an impressive hunebed with a long, rectangular lay-out. The burial chamber on the western side, which measures 5.5 by 1.5 metres, still lies embedded in a burial mound or tumulus. The bride is enclosed on the west side by the particularly impressive ‘wachterstenen’ or ‘Stone Guards’ although these were probably only erected here in the 19th century. The name ‘Visbek Bride’ is one of the oldest recorded names for this type of megalithic grave, dating from 1765. Concepts such as ‘bridestones’ hark back to a distant past when megaliths were still sites where marriage rites were performed. The saga of the Visbek Bride appeared in print in 1801. Against her will, a farmer’s daughter had to marry a man she did not love. She prayed to God that she would rather be turned to stone and her prayer was granted: one side shows the bridal procession and the other side the bridegroom and the bridal carriage (which we visited earlier). In 1933 the Folk Museum in Bremen wanted to excavate the bride’s grave but could not obtain permission, so the hunebed has always remained unopened.
Hunebed 6 – the Great Stones at Tholstedt (Station 28 on the Megalithic Culture Route)
The last hunebed I visited is not very well maintained and completely covered. But to be honest that also has its attractions and it is still worth visiting.
There are many other hunebeds in this area and you can find them at http://www.strassedermegalithkultur.de/en/33-exciting-archaeological-sites
In a following article I shall visit the largest Bronze Age and Iron Age grave field in the north of central Europe, which boasts more than 500 burial mounds. This grave field also forms part of the Megalithic Culture Route – Station 26.
Author: Harrie Wolters
Translation: Alun Harvey