As you perhaps know, I was in the Netherlands and Germany last month touring the Megalithic Route with other bloggers, the Council of Europe and the local partners. What the project is about and what the megalithic culture is, I've written about before (HERE), so this time I thought I'd focus on my own thoughts and experiences from the trip.
We all met in Borger, the Netherlands, to start our tour visiting the only museum dedicated to the megalithic culture so far - the Hunebedcentrum. It lays in an area rich in Neolithic and megalithic finds, and is situated next to the biggest hunebed in the Netherlands. It was amazing seeing this monument of the past just laying there, where it had been the last 5,000 years, holding on to its secrets. With one of the stones weighing over 20 tons! I guess I should explain the name hunebed. It is the Dutch name for megalithic tombs/dolmen, given to the monuments because the earlier inhabitans of the area thought they couldn't have been built by no other than giants. Hunebed actually means "bed of giants". Who else could move and position such huge stones?
The stone structures we see today are just the skeletons of the monuments of the past. They used to be covered with an earth mound, often completely burying the stones below. In Germany we visited a couple of reconstructed dolmens, or hünebetten as they are called there, with the biggest one being in Kleinenkneten. This passage grave is around 50 meters long, and the builders used 85 stones with an average weight of 4 tons to make it! One can only imagine how much effort it took to make these, thousands of these, in this area in Neolithic times. Seeing such monuments in real life is certainly humbling.
Today a lot of the original dolmens in the Netherlands/northern-Germany are lost. Many were used in making the dikes which now protect the Netherlands from the sea. Others where demolished and sold for other uses. It's sad that such an big, yet unknown, part of our cultural history has been lost, and it sheds light on how important this new Megalithic Routes project is. After all - the megalithic sites are some of the oldest and most mysterious man made sights we have in Europe.
Oh yes, they are very mysterious.
It still remains somewhat unclear when, why, and by whom the earliest dolmens were made. We have theories about who built them and for what purpose, but as with most things related to prehistoric times, we cannot know for certain. After all, nothing was written down, and most of the finds are lost today. Human remains, like bones and ashes, as well as lots of pottery and other artifacts, point to these being burial chambers for the dead. But if that was the case, they weren't just built for one person. The human remains left suggest they were built for many people, very many. Perhaps for one important member of the community from each generation? If so, how did they choose who? Was it for both males and females? Was it only for one family, or several? Why are many dolmens placed right next to each other some places? Why are some dolmens lacking human remains if they were used as tombs? Has the bones disappeared through time, or were they never there in the first place? Could the human remains that we do find in these structures have been put there at a later time? Perhaps in the Bronze Age? Why were all dolmens positioned east/west with the entrance to the south? Was it to face the path of the sun, and/or the sun at its highest? Or was it to face some sort of ancient neolithic highway? Why does only one known megalithic dolmen have the entrance facing north?
We don't know.
The only thing we do know, is that we cannot know for certain.
I think that is something of the most fascinating about these monuments. They are impressive, they are enormous - and they are full of secrets. Secrets we will probably never know the answers to.
In this time of age where we surround ourselves with computers and smartphones, a search on the internet is never far away. We can always find the answers at any given time and we always know all we need about everyone and everything. It's refreshing to know that we cannot know it all, and it is kind of fun pondering about the questions of our past that we can probably never find the answers to. All I know is that I felt dwarfed standing next to these massive and timeless man made structures, both in body and mind.
Cultures before us attached lots of folklore to these ancient monuments.Their way of coping with not having the answers was by basically just creating their own. We find traces of this in the names given to the structures, and also in histories related to them. Many believed that fairies lived within these stones, like for example at the dolmen in Albersdorf, Germany. It's said that if you light up six candles at midnight, you wake up the fairies and they come out to dance with you. Other sights were, however, connected with darker forces such as the devil. Because of this many dolmen were destroyed to sewer the connection between the devil and the surrounding landscape.
The local team
Today it is commonly accepted that the people of the funnelbeaker culture (TRB) which lived in this area around 5,000 - 6,000 years ago built the earliest forms of this monuments. The culture is named after their characteristic ceramics and beakers with funnel-shaped tops. Instead of focusing on hunting and gathering like people did before them, these people mainly focused on farming and agriculture. They had crops of wheat and barley, and they were herding sheep, goats, pigs and cattle. Their homes were often small and modest, and often centered around a monumental megalithic grave. This shows the importance of these "houses of the dead", and the graves often have a stone circle around them - producing a barrier between the grave and the "land of the living".
When touring the megalithic route, one doesn't only have to stop at megalithic sites. It can be nice to get a little break from all the pondering about the mysteries, so luckily there are also lots of other cultural sites to visit, both old and new. We, for example, made stops at Schloss Clemenswerth, an impressive hunting palace in Sögel, Germany built for Clemens August of Bavaria, and at the largest burial ground in western Europe; Pestrup. The latter is an area south of Bremen, full of burial sites from the Bronze and Iron Ages, with a total of over 530 burial mounds! Here we did yoga on the mounds in the morning light trying to connect through the ground with our ancestors.. We found it kind of difficult to connect several thousand years back in time, but the yoga was fun!
We also witnessed the first bicycle event on the newly opened bicycle path along the megalithic route in Germany. The starting point was from Landesmuseum für Natur und Mensch, where we saw bog mummies and learnt about the changing of the landscape after the Ice Age. How the stones used for making the megalithic monuments arrived here from Scandinavia with the sediments from the ice pushing south, and we also learnt about how the people adapted to the Neolithic revolution. We ate delicious kvarg in the fresh air outside at the Milkhus in Bergedorf with the bicyclists, and ended the event in Dötlingen with pea soup and local snaps with the bicyclists, the major and lots of locals at Lopshof restaurant.
The last day we visited the Stone Age park in Albersdorf (Steinzeitpark Dithmarschen), where we walked between houses that are thousands of years old. Reconstructed, of course. Still, they offer a unique peek into the ways of life in the past. There are also stations throughout the park where we tried making stone age bread, jewlery, amber amulets, flint arrows and tested our skills at archery. Skills that were usefull in the Neolithic era, and really fun to try today.
In addition we visited megalithic monuments related to ancient wedding cults, ate the local spargel, came face to face with a neolithic man, saw how to make fire from rocks, cut leather with flint, had close encounters with cows, horses and ..the rain, heard stories about the megaliths in relation to astronomy, saw charming villages, met archaeologists, historians and geologists, explored old churches and saw a thousand year old tree. The Megalithic Route is certainly interesting and has a lot to offer, for both young and old. I am definitely happy I was chosen to be a part of the team exploring this route, and it was a lot of fun getting to know both the locals and the bloggers/photographers.
These megalithic monuments have fascinated people for centuries, and they still continue to this day. Why would ancient humans erect such big monuments, moving and positioning enormous stones weighing several tons? Why would they go through so much trouble? As mentioned, there are lots of mysteries related to these monuments. It's not possible to say exactly who built them or why - and that is part of the charm, in my opinion. But if you'd like to get a feel of how impressive these monuments really are, you need to see them in real life. You need to walk around them, study them, touch them. Only then might they reveal their ancient secrets to you... Perhaps with a little guidance from the fairies.