Ritual landscapes around hunebeds

Detail van de nieuwe vensterplaat over de hunebedbouwers. Door Roelof Wijtsma

Hunebeds in the Dutch landscape

Here in the Netherlands we are familiar with the hunebeds as ancient monuments standing alone in the landscape. A pile of stones, expertly set one on top of the other in a recognisable shape. But that is certainly not how they looked in the Stone Age. In prehistory the stones were placed in a carefully thought out way, the holes between them filled with small stones and the entire structure covered with sand and turf to create a small hill. All that could be seen from outside was a stone entrance and a ring of stones around the bottom of the hill. The entrance was probably closed by a wooden door. We know from research in Sweden and Denmark that the hunebed and its hill were wind- and water-proof, so that the bodies and offerings placed inside were provided with long-term protection against the natural elements.

In the Netherlands the original hills no longer exist, although the so-called step grave in Eext (D13) is still covered by a sort of mound. Over many centuries researchers and curious amateurs have dug away the remains of any hills over hunebeds. One of the reasons for this is that people did not believe the piled-up sand was an original feature of a hunebed but had been blown there by the wind. We know better now, but in the meantime much valuable information has been lost.

A hunebed is more than a grave

A hunebed is often referred to as a grave. That is because people think of a grave in the sense that we use the word today – a place where a person is buried, a place where someone occasionally comes to visit and to leave flowers in memory of the deceased. With a hunebed, we have to change our way of thinking and consider it in a completely different way. A hunebed was built to honour one’s ancestors. It was believed that the dead always remained close to the living, not physically but in the spirit world. It was probably believed that they could help in some way, for instance to ensure a good harvest or a healthy life and to bring up healthy children. In this way people had a very strong relationship with their ancestors, even after they were dead.

Saying goodbye to someone was not a one-off event. All kinds of rituals were used to ensure continued contact with the ancestors and various rituals were held several times during the year. Of course we do not know what precise form these rituals took but we can gain some idea by looking at rituals still practised today by people in other parts of the world. It may have been a kind of shamanism, by which a shaman (holy man) made contact with the ancestors through some kind of hallucination. These ritual gatherings were undoubtedly accompanied by feasting and by inducing hallucinations through smoking and alcohol.

We know from scientific investigations that – long before the hunebed builders arrived in the Netherlands – beer was being brewed in places such as Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia, Turkey (from where the hunebed builders first came). Evidence of beer brewing has also been found in Israel. So grain was used not only for food but also for making beer. That would not have been the clear liquid that we know today but a cloudy alcoholic substance. Evidence has been found in the Netherlands to suggest that beer-making techniques may also have been known here.

A ritual landscape

New research in Denmark shows that hunebeds were surrounded by all kinds of other structures, varying from simple wooden buildings (‘houses of the dead”) to free-standing stones, stone platforms and rows of posts. We know from excavations at the Dutch hunebeds D36 and D37 in Valthe that they also had rows of posts. In some cases people were buried separately in individual graves around the hunebed. Based on this evidence we should perhaps view the site of a hunebed as a ritual landscape with the hunebed as a central hub, surrounded by other kinds of structures where a variety of activities took place. We shall never know for certain what happened around a hunebed, but we can be fairly certain that it was a meeting place where various rituals were celebrated at different times of the year in order to placate the ancestors.

Different hunebeds, different rituals

Different hunebeds may well have served different purposes. Some sites had small hunebeds which were probably of local significance. On the other hand the few very large hunebeds like D27 in Borger and D53 and D54 near Havelte would have had a greater regional function as a place where people from a wider area came together for large-scale rituals. Of course this is all still speculation and will remain so until further evidence comes to light.

More research is necessary

The discovery of other structures near the hunebeds at Valthe in Drenthe happened by chance. We do not know if the same was true of other sites. It is to be hoped that future archaeological and scientific fieldwork in areas around hunebeds will reveal new evidence. With that in mind, we should begin now to consider whether the small protected areas of land around a hunebed are large enough. Perhaps we should be extending this protection to larger areas.

This article previously appeared in the quarterly magazine (number 4, 2021) of the Drentse Landschap Foundation.


Harrie Wolters – Director Hunebed Centre

Prof. Dr. Daan Raemaekers  – Senior lecturer in Archaeology in Northwest Europe and Director of the Groningen Institute for Archaeology

Translation     Alun Harvey


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