Hunebeds, the Prehistoric Megaliths of the Netherlands

September 29, 2023

PattiW_epod_Netherlands_IMG_5303 (002)

Photographer: Patti Weeks

Summary Author: Patti Weeks

Many ancient cultures have built large stone monuments for use as sanctuaries or tombs. These megaliths (Greek term for “big stones”) are found in much of Europe, parts of Africa, India, and the Far East. The most well-known prehistoric monument is Stonehenge in England.

A chamber megalith tomb, or a passage grave, is called a “dolmen,” and usually consists of a series of two or more vertical stones, which support a horizontal table-top capstone. The dolmens in the Netherlands are called “hunebeds” (hunebedden in Dutch.) The one pictured here (photo taken April 26, 2023) is the largest of the 54 remaining hunebeds, found mostly in the northeastern inland province of Drenthe. This one is the centerpiece of the Hunebed Centrum museum near Borger. These collective graves were built over 5,000 years ago at the beginning of the late Neolithic, or the New Stone Age (ca. 3500 BCE), by the Funnel Beaker culture, the first farming society in northern Europe and Scandinavia.

During the Saalian Ice Age (from ~200,000–130,000 BCE), Drenthe was buried under at least 3,280 feet (1,000 m) of glacial ice, which moved the huge stones (“erratics”) used for the hunebeds, from the regions of Sweden and Finland. During the retreat of this ice age, a river formed within the melting ice cap, leaving behind a high 43-mile long (70-km) sandy ridge called the Hondsrug (“dog’s back.”) This provided ideal farming land for the Funnel Beakers, as the culture gradually transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers. This region was designated as the Hondsrug UNESCO Geopark in 2013 and is part of a large network of geoparks worldwide.

This hunebed is about 74 feet long (23 m), and the largest stone weighs over 20 tons (40,000 pounds.) How were such huge stones transported to the tomb sites? Folklore has it that the megaliths were built by a race of giants called ‘huynen’ (the derivation of the term hunebed.) This legend was finally dismissed, but not until the early 20th century. Modern historians believe the boulders’ flat sides were placed on rollers for conveyance. After the stones were arranged, each hunebed was covered with a mound of earth, except for the capstone. Originally there were more than 80 hunebeds, but over the centuries the missing hunebeds were dismantled for use by church and road builders, pillaged by treasure-seekers, and stones were even taken to reinforce dikes when the seas and rivers threatened flooding.


Borger, Netherlands, Coordinates: 52.9296, 6.7926

Related Links:

The Netherlands - Water, Water, Everywhere!

Avebury Stone Circle

More About the Hunebeds in Holland