The Mystery of the Dolmens—Why, When, and How?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN THE NETHERLANDS
‘WHAT is a dolmen?’ you might ask. It is a prehistoric site made up of two or more heavy upright stones with a capstone, usually forming a chamber, that is generally used as a burial place. They are found mainly in western, northern, and southern Europe.
In the Dutch province of Drenthe, dolmens are generally located in attractive, scenic areas. The famous painter Vincent van Gogh wrote in one of his letters: ‘Drenthe is so beautiful that I would rather not have seen it if I were not able to remain here forever.’ Lovers of nature as well as those interested in archaeology get all that they could wish for when they visit the dolmens in Drenthe.
But why should ancient collections of stones interest us? One answer is curiosity. Why would ancient peoples go to such enormous trouble to move and shape and lift these tremendous weights? Some stones weigh tons. And in those times, they did not have modern cranes to do the lifting! So, what can we find out about dolmens?
Dolmens are classified as megalithic monuments (“megalith,” from Greek, means “large stone”). Perhaps you are familiar with the menhirs of France, named after a Breton word meaning “long stone.” The Balearic island of Minorca has megaliths known as taulas (tables), which consist of a heavy slab placed horizontally on a vertical stone, thus forming a massive T.
People continue to be intrigued by Stonehenge, in England, a circle of very large stones, some weighing as much as 50 tons. About 80 bluestone pillars were transported more than 240 miles [380 km] from the Preseli Mountains in Wales. According to the National Geographic Society book Mysteries of Mankind—Earth’s Unexplained Landmarks, “scholars surmise that the monument [Stonehenge] . . . was a temple that may have reflected the eternal, cyclical movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the heavens, but little else.”
A dolmen today is just a skeleton of a burial monument, since the gigantic rocks were originally out of sight under a mound of sand or earth. Discoveries have revealed that the dolmen was a communal burial tomb. Some evidence indicates that more than a hundred people lay buried in one particular dolmen—it was a virtual cemetery!
In the Netherlands, 53 dolmens have been preserved to our day; 52 of these are situated in the province of Drenthe. Remarkably, they were not set up haphazardly, but most are aligned east-west, the entrance being on the south, which may have something to do with the seasonal positions of the sun. The ancient builders used vertical supporting rocks and large capstones, while the apertures between the rocks were closed up with chunks of stone. The floor was paved with stone. The largest dolmen in the Netherlands, near the village of Borger, is 70 feet [22 m] long and still consists of 47 rocks. One of the capstones is about ten feet [3 m] long and weighs 20 tons! All of this gives rise to a number of questions.
When Were They Built? By Whom, How, and Why?
Answers to such questions are very vague because there is no written history from Europe of that time. Thus, it is fitting to refer to dolmens as mysterious monuments. What, then, is known about them? At any rate, what claims are made?
In 1660, “Reverend” Picardt, of the small city of Coevorden, in Drenthe, concluded that they were built by giants. In time, local authorities showed interest in these graves. Because the stones were being used to reinforce dikes as well as to build churches and dwellings, the Drenthe Landscape Administration enacted a law on July 21, 1734, protecting the dolmens.
It was not until 1912 that several dolmens were thoroughly examined by experts. Potsherds (pottery fragments), tools (flint ax heads, arrowheads), and ornaments, such as amber beads, were found in dolmens but few skeletal remains, since these were poorly preserved in the sandy soil. At times, potsherds of as many as 600 vessels were found. Assuming that two or three vessels of food were assigned to each dead person, quite a number of people must have been buried in some tombs.
Scientists claim that the dolmens were built with erratic boulders from Scandinavia, which had been transported by glaciers during a primeval ice age. It is asserted that the builders were farmers of what is termed the “Funnel Beaker” culture, so named because of the characteristic funnel-shaped beakers that have been found.
One theory as to the building method states: “The heavy rocks were probably laid on wooden rollers and pulled with the aid of leather traces. In order to move the capstones upward, a ramp of sand and clay was presumably built.” But nobody is really sure how this was done. Why were the dead not just buried in the usual manner? What notion did the builders have of life after death? Why were artifacts left in the graves? Researchers can only guess at the answers. Because the dolmens were built long ago, it is not possible to say exactly when, by whom, why, and how.
When, in God’s due time, the dead are resurrected, those returning may answer some of these questions. (John 5:28; Acts 24:15) Dolmen builders may then, at long last, reveal when they lived, who they were, why they built their impressive monuments, and how they did it.
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A taula in Minorca, Spain
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Dolmen near Havelte, Netherlands
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Below: The Large Dolmen, near Borger, Netherlands
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A reconstructed dolmen near the village of Schoonoord, Netherlands, showing the earthen mound and the exposed stones
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Long tomb in Emmen (Schimmeres), Netherlands