Hunebed Highway sign

The N34 is a major road running through the Province of Drenthe in the Netherlands. Between Emmen in the south and Groningen in the north the road follows the line of the Hondsrug, an elevated sandy ridge formed during the ice ages. The Hondsrug has been inhabited since prehistoric times and around 3,000 BC the area was home to the people of the Funnel Beaker Culture. As well as their distinctive pottery, they left behind massive stone tombs known in Dutch as hunebeds (dolmens or passage graves). 53 of these ancient monuments remain standing in the countryside and the N34 passes no fewer than 47 of them.

Map of N34 and hunebeds (shown as red dots) © www.DvhN.nl

In 2018 the N34 was officially designated “Hunebed Highway.” This was the result of an 8-year campaign led by Hein Klompmaker, until recently director of the Hunebed Centre in Borger. Hein is passionate about history and prehistory, and about the hunebeds in particular. In the Netherlands, everyone learns about the hunebeds in school because they are the first topic on the national education curriculum. The village of Borger itself is known as the “Hunebed Capital” because it is home not only to the Hunebed Centre but also to the largest hunebed in the Netherlands, which measures 22.6 metres. Two further examples stand beside the road on the edge of the village.

Villages and hunebeds spread along the Hondsrug and the N34

In 2013 the Hondsrug region was awarded the status of a UNESCO Global Geopark – the first and only geopark in the Netherlands. Formed during the ice ages around 150,000 years ago, the region has a unique geological history and has been continuously inhabited since Neanderthal hunters arrived here in search of mammoths. The Hondsrug was – and still is – an important trade route, and the road across it developed gradually from a sandy track linking the farming villages into a cobbled road, and eventually into an asphalt highway. Today’s N34 follows the original prehistoric route and travelling along it is a journey through over 5,000 years of human history! (https://www.hunebednieuwscafe.nl/2017/03/the-hondsrug-unesco-global-geopark-an-introduction/)

Of course visiting the hunebeds, and the many other interesting sites along the Hondsrug, means leaving the N34 and taking the local roads. These bring you through picturesque villages with old farmsteads, ancient churches and any number of pubs and cafés. Some hunebeds stand close to the road or even within residential areas, as in Emmen and Annen, while others lie in open countryside and can be reached by a short walk, as in Gasteren and Bronneger. All of the hunebeds are numbered and clearly signposted with information boards. They are all worth visiting and a few of the most interesting are listed below.

Driving from south to north, a good place to start is the so-called Popeless Church (D49) just north of Emmen. It got its name because it was used for illicit open-air Protestant services in the 16th century. In 1959 it was restored to its original state, including the covering grass mound, and so gives the best impression of what a hunebed looked like when it was built. (https://www.hunebednieuwscafe.nl/2017/10/d49-the-popeless-church-english/)

D49, the Popeless Church. Photo by Hans Meijer

Follow the N34 north and take the Borger exit to visit the Hunebed Centre, home to the largest hunebed in the Netherlands, D27. Inside the museum you will learn all about the people who built the hunebeds around 5,000 years ago, while outside in the Prehistoric Park you can stroll through 150,000 years of prehistory on the Hondsrug.

Leaving the N34 and driving through Zuidlaren towards the lake brings you to the most northerly of all the hunebeds. D3 and D4 stand close together next to a house in Midlaren, while G1 – the only hunebed over the border in the province of Groningen – stands on the edge of the village of Noordlaren. Only half of the hunebed still remains but its open position and distant views make it worth visiting.

D4 in Midlaren Photo by Davado
G1 in Noordlaren. Photo by Davado

Text Alun Harvey

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