Gijs Klompmaker of the Hunebed Centre interviews Willem Donker, author and hunebed fanatic.
“Sometimes I just stand in front of a hunebed and shout for joy”
On a fine April day in Oranjewoud I met Willem Donker, an estate agent in Heerenveen. Willem has a hobby, one which you might say has taken over his life. Sitting at his kitchen table the good-humoured Friesian talks about his passion for hunebeds.
I began by asking him if he has always had this passion. Willem enthusiastically explained how it began very early:
”Really it was always there. My school-teacher knew Tjerk Vermaning and one day he gave a talk at my junior school. (At that time Vermaning had not yet been charged with fraud). I was fascinated! That talk awoke my interest in the Stone Age and Prehistory. When I was 16, I visited Stonehenge and that was my first megalith, I thought it was fantastic. That is where the seed was sown although it was only much later that I took it any further.”
His first job was with the Department of Roads and Water Management. His patch included Drenthe so now and again he would make a detour to visit a hunebed. In the 1980’s he was already familiar with the location of around 25 hunebeds. But it was not until seven or eight years later that the real beginning came.“One Sunday afternoon I decided to visit all the hunebeds I knew and photograph them, and that was very enjoyable. I bought some books so that I could study them in more depth, and I had a topographical atlas of Drenthe with which I was able to locate the rest of the hunebeds. With that atlas I was able to visit all 54 hunebeds.”
Willem was hooked. And when someone told him that there were also a few hunebeds just over the border in Germany, that also caught his attention. With only a cycle map of Drenthe and Emsland in his pocket, he crossed the border to look for them.
“That was a real challenge because the map was not very detailed. I did find a few hunebeds and I noticed that one of them was marked with the number 881. I thought how stupid the Germans were to start numbering at 870. Then later at home I learned about the Sprockhoff numbering system and realised that there were far more hunebeds in Germany than I had thought.”
Ernst Sprockhoff was a German Prehistory expert, who began in the 1930’s to document and catalogue all hunebeds known at that time in Germany. You could call him the German Van Giffen, although Sprockhoff’s task was many times greater. By the end he had documented about 950 hunebeds. And numbered them in a system which is still used today. For Donker, this was the start of an incredible undertaking.
“I ordered copies of Sprockhoff’s three atlasses. I bought books and collected information. The hobby expanded. I also wanted to describe the different types of hunebeds. And I began mapping out the hunebeds. I taught myself everything I needed to know. I even studied the geological aspect, mapping where the hunebeds were located and in which part of the country.
At home the thought of the Dutch and German hunebeds stimulated him and filled all his spare time. Within just four years Willem Donker – originally a surveyor and later an estate agent in Heerenveen – had visited and catalogued the entire Western group of hunebeds. A total of around 350.
“There are approximately 1,350 hunebeds still standing in Germany. At first I decided that I would not visit them all, only the Western group. But then, when you’ve done that …!
He made albums and books of all the German hunebeds, divided into administrative districts (Landkreisen). In his spare time he surfed Google Earth and tried to map out the best routes. He prepared himself meticulously. At the time of this interview (2019) he had already visited around 1,200 locations and had just returned from visiting the area of Neubrandenburg on the Polish border.
What is your general impression?
“In Germany nobody looks after hunebeds. Most have been for a large part demolished or damaged, and they are difficult to find. But the search itself can be very enjoyable and sometimes I actually shout for joy when I find one. Sometimes I only find one at the third attempt. I jump over ditches, often tear my jeans and I’ve landed in precarious situations involving wild boar and wolves, but I am determined to find that elusive hunebed. If an area contains 321 hunebeds, I am not satisfied with 320.”
Some of these prehistoric graves lie in the most insane places! They are often remote, sometimes on a farmer’s land or even in a military training zone – Willem has seen it all in his obsessive quest. So what does he do, apart from shouting, when he finds a new hunebed?.
“I take photos and measure the hunebed. I investigate what type it is and make a note of which stones still remain and which have been removed. Then I always take time to sit quietly and think about what might have happened here around 5,500 years ago.”
What can you say about the location of German hunebeds?
“They lie near a small stream, a river or a collapsed pingo, always near water. They are also usually higher in the landscape in an area of lateral moraines. These are the most obvious features.”It will have taken Willem five journeys to visit all THIRTEEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY! Hunebeds in Germany – an unparalleled achievement. Sprockhoff himself visited only around nine hundred and fifty (including around 100 taken over from 19e century amateurs; by Sprockhoff’s time these 100 hunebeds had already been demolished). It is worth remembering that Sprockhoff did it all without Google and without a car! A few people have visited all hunebeds in a specific part of the country, but nobody has been so fanatical as Willem.
For some time Willem looked for a way to digitally preserve and present all his collected information as an online masterwork. Then it occurred to Willem that it would be logical to discuss co-operation with the Hunebed Centre. “For bread you go to a baker, for hunebeds to the Hunebed Centre.”
Willem is unique. Willem is resolute. He perseveres and enjoys every hunebed trip. He is like a modern hunter-gatherer, seeking to understand everything about these megalithic structures. Not in order to survive, but to enjoy.
“At home they always say: he’s going off on another of his hunebed hunts. But when you have once begun collecting, you can’t stop until you’ve found them all.”
The Hunebednieuwscafé website has over 1,300 articles about German hunebeds. Measured, documented and photographed. All visited and recorded by one good-humoured Friesian with an unbridled passion for hunebeds.
Translation Alun Harvey