Mysterious Dolmens

Holland is a very flat country without any mountains or rocky areas. Yet in the northern part of this little land you will find megalithic structures with big boulders, some weighing more than 20 tons, stacked on top of each other. For a long time, the purpose of these structures and the origin of these boulders was a mystery. And even though archaeologists now have a better understanding of these dolmens, or “hunebedden” as they are called in Dutch, many of the questions surrounding them remain only partially answered.

On a walk through the Drentsche Aa, an area near Assen, the capital of the Dutch province of Drenthe, I passed some of these dolmens. The oldest archaeological finds in this area date from the mesolithic (“middle stone age”), which lasted roughly from 9500 to 4400 BC. Although the dolmens themselves are believed to be from the neolithic (“later stone age”), estimated to be built between 3400-3200 BC (i.e., over 5000 years ago).

A dolmen near the town of Rolde in the province if Drenthe, The Netherlands.
A dolmen near the town of Rolde in the province of Drenthe, The Netherlands.

It is generally assumed that these dolmens served as burial chambers. However, there is little hard evidence for this. The ones that have been excavated in Drenthe did not reveal any human remains, although the theory is that the skeletons have all disappeared because of the rather acidic soil in the area. Some bones have been found near dolmens in Germany in areas where the ground is more calcareous. But it is difficult to say whether these are remains from actual burials.

Another dolmen, near the Kampsheide, in between Assen and Rolde.
Another dolmen near the Kampsheide, in between Assen and Rolde.

And even if they really were burial chambers, there is still some debate about who was actually buried there. Were these dolmens “mass graves” for the common people, or were they reserved for the elite? Any evidence or theories about their function mostly stems from pottery shards found in and around the dolmens. These certainly indicate plenty of activity, perhaps even occasional feasts and offerings. Another intriguing fact, though, is that most dolmens are oriented in an east-west direction, giving rise to speculations that they were perhaps aligned with particular sunrise or equinox events.

An old map of the area, from around 1690.
An old map of the area, from around 1690. The red circle indicates where some of the oldest archaeological evidence of human activity was found.

It seems that pretty much the only indisputable fact about these dolmens is where the boulders that were used to build them actually came from. Some 150,000 years ago, during a particularly intense ice age, glaciers stretched all the way down to the northern regions of Holland. These brought many boulders with them from Sweden and Finland, which remained here after the glaciers retreated again. Some of these boulders weigh more than 20 tons, with the heaviest boulder from a Dutch dolmen weighing over 40 tons. How people from the stone age more than 5000 years ago managed to transport and lift such heavy stones, remains perhaps the biggest mystery of them all…