Archaeology is the first item on the national history curriculum for all Dutch schoolchildren. They learn about the oldest monuments in the Netherlands – the prehistoric ‘hunebeds’ (passage graves or dolmens) which were built by the people of the Funnel Beaker Culture who lived here between 3400 and 2850 BC. There are still 54 of these impressive megaliths standing in the open countryside in the northern provinces of Drenthe and Groningen. The Hunebed Centre in Borger, built next to the largest of all the monuments, is a dedicated museum which attracts over 90,000 visitors every year, including many school groups.
Almost all of the hunebeds stand on the Hondsrug, a 70km long sandy ridge in the northeast of the country. Although only about 12 metres higher than the flat Dutch landscape around it, the Hondsrug once offered the only dry ground above the surrounding peatbogs. During the last but one Ice Age (Saalian) this region was covered by a layer of ice up to 1 kilometre thick. When the ice receded, thousands of massive boulders were left behind, the largest measuring 1.2 – 1.8 metres high and weighing up to 25 tons. These provided ideal building materials for prehistoric man.
Funnel Beaker Culture
Centuries ago local people thought that these megalithic monuments could only have been built by a race of giants which they called ‘hunen’, hence the name Hunebed. In fact we now know that they were built by the Neolithic people of the Funnel Beaker Culture, sometimes known by their German name of TRB or Trichterbecherkultuur. Recent research suggests that these early immigrants to Western Europe had their origins in Anatolia around 6000 BC, from where they spread gradually into Central Europe before moving westward into Germany, Holland and Scandinavia.
Unlike their nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, the hunebed builders were the first farmers in Northern Europe. They lived in small settlements, built houses and laid out fields where they grew grain, flax and pulses. Their cattle grazed by the streams and their pigs foraged for food in the forests. They used flint tools and made distinctively shaped earthenware pottery, decorated with incised patterns. Now that groups or families were permanently settled in one place, they began building impressive stone monuments at the edge of the settlement in which to bury their dead. Most hunebeds were built in the early part of this period, around 3,400 BC, but some at least appear to have been used for many burials over a longer period, even into the Bronze Age. The monuments may also have served as territorial markers or ritual sites.
The first recorded excavation of a hunebed was by a local woman, Titia Brongersma, in 1685. She found human bones and it is her amateur research which first showed that the hunebeds had been used for human burials. What we might term the first proper archaeological research was done in 1878 by two Englishmen, William Lukis and Henry Dryden. They visited and examined several hunebeds and collected a large number of finds, mainly pottery shards, which they presented to the British Museum. The first Dutch archaeologist to study the hunebeds was Jan Hendrik Holwerda (1873-1951), director of the Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. In 1912 he excavated two adjacent hunebeds and found a large number of artefacts which attracted international interest.
The man most closely associated with hunebed research in the Netherlands was Professor Albert Egges van Giffen (1884-1973), director of the Archaeological Institute at the University of Groningen. In 1917 he was commissioned by the Dutch government to prepare a report on the condition of all hunebeds. From then until his death in 1973, van Giffen devoted his life to visiting and studying all known Dutch hunebeds. Some he excavated, some he restored and some he even reconstructed to what he considered to be their ‘original’ state. He also catalogued all hunebeds and numbered them in sequence from north to south: G1 – G2 for those in the province of Groningen and D1 – D52 for the province of Drenthe. Most hunebeds are still known by these numbers today.
Archaeological finds from the hunebeds consist mainly of pottery shards. The quantities vary considerably – none in one hunebed and hundreds in another. Hunebed D21 in Bronneger, for example, contained shards from at least 600 pots. The pottery also displayed a number of different shapes. As well as the distinctive funnel beakers, finds included spoons with a concave handle, collared flasks, shoulder flasks, dishes and urns.
There are few other artefacts but they include flint axes, arrowheads and scrapers, jewellery such as beads made from jet and amber and even some articles made of copper. These were probably imported and are characteristic of other Stone Age cultures in Britain, France and parts of Middle Europe. The presence of such valuable artefacts suggests that only important people were buried in hunebeds. No human bones have been found and only the remains of burnt skeletons have been preserved.
Assuming that each burial was only accompanied by a few grave goods, archaeologists think that several dozen people were buried in each hunebed over a period of time. Many of the tombs remained in use for a few hundred years, even into the Bronze Age, until hunebed burials virtually came to an end after 2,850 BC. There are also hundreds of later burial mounds to be found in the area.
The last excavation of a Dutch hunebed was D26 in the woods near Drouwen in 1968 and 1970, conducted by van Giffen and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam. They discovered thousands of pottery shards which, following painstaking expert reconstruction, were found to come from some 159 pots dating to the period ca. 3,400-3,000 BC. The decoration on some of the pots and dishes is so similar that they may well have been made by the same person. The hunebed also contained flint arrowheads and axes, amber necklaces, cremated bones and some items from after the Funnel Beaker period. The entire collection of finds is on display in the Hunebed Centre.
Most hunebeds today stand unprotected in open countryside and are freely accessible to visitors. Many have certainly been robbed over the centuries but today the underground chambers of all hunebeds are sealed with grass-covered concrete blocks. Experts are reluctant to launch further excavations for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is felt that they are unlikely to reveal any new information; and secondly, any excavation is bound to cause unavoidable damage to the original sites. In the future, it is hoped that new techniques may enable archaeologists to avoid such damage. Not surprisingly, this is a subject of frequent debate in the Netherlands.
The Hunebed Centre brings archaeology to life
The Hunebed Centre in Borger is dedicated to the Funnel Beaker Culture, placing the story in the context of the 150,000 year history of the Hondsrug region, which is a UNESCO Global Geopark. The Centre functions as a museum, an educational centre and an open-air park, bringing archaeology to life in new and original ways through displays, games, quizzes, reconstructions and living history. The centre is regularly visited by school groups from all over the country.
Among items on display is the entire collection of finds from the excavation of hunebed D26. This clearly shows the many different types of pottery made by the people of the Funnel Beaker Culture: pots large and small, dishes with handles, bowls, urns, many types of small pots and more than 25 funnel beakers.
The display inside the museum focuses on the lives of the people, using films, digital games and quizzes, diorama’s, human and animal figures. Visitors can also walk through a life-size replica of a hunebed. Outside the museum, the site is home to a Geopark exhibition and a Prehistoric Park (‘A stroll through 150,000 years’). Visitors follow a ‘time path’ passing a reindeer-hunter’s tent, a wooden peatbog causeway, a small wooden temple and life-size replicas showing how farmhouses developed through the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. There is also a reconstruction of Prof. van Giffen’s last excavation of D26 in 1970. At weekends living history re-enactors demonstrate experimental archaeology and other activities.
Next to the museum stands D27, the largest hunebed in the Netherlands. Built around 3,400 BC, the hunebed is 22.6 metres long and boasts 9 capstones, 28 uprights, 5 gate posts and 2 kerb stones. It also contains the largest boulder found in any Dutch hunebed, with an estimated weight of 20,000 kilos.
The hunebeds hold a special place for Dutch people, who learned about them in school. Their importance as icons for local residents – and for tourism in the Province of Drenthe – is shown by the fact that the main road through the area along the Hondsrug, the N34, was recently officially named the Hunebed Highway!
Text Nadine Lemmers (archaeologist) and Alun Harvey (volunteer)
6 June 2019