The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
Big Ol’ Stones – Neolithic Burials in Northern Germany
I got some more old stones for you. There are several sites in northern Germany where you may come across curious settings of rather large boulders. Their presence has been blamed on giants or the devil, and they are often known as ‘giant’s bed’, ‘devil’s oven’ and such, complete with legends how the giant or devil got tricked by the nearby villagers and was buried there.
Neolithic stone settings Devil’s Oven (background left) and Giant’s Bed in the Everstorf Forest
Neither giants nor devils had anything to do with those, though. The picturesque collection of dolmen and hunebeds was the work of the Funnelbeaker people; most of them date to 3500-3000 BC. These ensembles of stone settings like dolmen, passage graves and hunebeds can be found from the Netherlands and the North German Lowlands to the Vistula in Poland, and in southern Scandiavia, mostly along the coasts. (The famous dolmen and menhir settings in Brittany belong to a different culture.)
Everstorf Forest, passage grave with surrounding wall (tomb no. 1/311)
Several of those settings have been discovered in the Everstorf Forest near Grevesmühlen (some 20 kilometres west of Wismar at the Baltic Sea). There are 15 megalith graves in all, five in the southern and ten in the northern group. I visited the southern group which has fewer, but more spectacular examples. They have been excavated by Ewald Schuldt in the 1960ies. Most of them are listed in the Atlas der Megalithgräber Deutschlands by Ernst Sprockhoff, 1968, who also worked on researching those sites (I give the numbers of the tables in the forest together with those by Sprockhoff).
Lancken-Granitz, dolmen with remains of hunebed (no. 1/504)
Some other examples are located near Lancken-Granitz on Rugia. I've added a few photos of those burials to the illustrations of this post. Of course, I got a lot more photos and some detailed information about the sites as well, but that is for another post. This one will be about the Funnelbeaker culture and the various types of Neolithic stone burials.
A great dolmen (Devil’s Oven in the Everstorf Forest; no. 2/312)
There are different types of stone settings at both sites: The dolmen (also referred to as Urdolmen ‒ original dolmen ‒ in German) which consists of three or more standing megaliths, sometimes worked to fit in height, with one or several horizontal capstones, called ‘tables’. For those, boulders with a flat shape were chosen. The Devil's Oven is a great dolmen, or portal tomb, with an antechamber and a main chamber. Polygonal variants with several chambers also exist.
Entrance to a passage grave (Everstorf no. 4/314)
The second example is a passage grave, a rectangular, circular or oval chamber with a roofed passage leading to it. Most examples in Germany are rectangular or trapezoid, the round cairn version like the – somewhat younger – Clava Cairns is more rare. Examples in the Everstorf Forest are the graves number 1 and 4; the boundaries were marked with smaller megaliths (see also below). Passage graves could have more than one chamber.
Hunebed with a stone cist burial chamber (Everstorf no. 3/313)
Another type of megalith tombs are the gallery graves. Those are rectangular chambers covered by mounds, like the British long barrows and the German stone cist (Steinkisten) burials. There is no passage leading to the tomb.
Overgrown remains of the stone cist in the hunebed (no. 3/313)
Today, only the stones of those various types of burials remain, but once the gaps had been filled in with daub or loam, or even drystone walls, thus creating a sort of cave.
There is a preference to an east-west alignment, but no connections with the solar cycle like in the Clava Cairns.
Hunebed setting with passage grave (Everstorf no. 1/311)
The so-called hunebed is a feature that may contain various types of tombs. Hunebeds are stone settings of smaller megaliths and sandstone slabs in combination – mostly rectangular or trapezoid, sometimes with rounded corners – surrounding an area of grass covered turf that is usually slightly domed. Those settings may contain a burial chamber of the stone cist type or passage grave, but sometimes they serve as markers without traces of a burial. It is possible that the remains of such burials have decayed if they were made of timber due to the acid soil in many northern German and Scandinavian locations.
Lancken-Granitz, side wall of the great dolmen no. 1/504
Usually, the tombs – except for the stone kerbs surrounding them – were covered by earth and/or gravel and a layer of grass, but those have either weathered away or were removed during excavations. Not all sites remain are in such a good shape as the examples above; one of the tombs in Everstorf South only survives in fragments. The remains belong to a former great dolmen.
Destroyed great dolmen (Everstorf no. 5/315
Many Neolithic burial sites have been used as quarry since the Middle Ages (stones from a devil's tomb could still make a good church, *grin*), or were destroyed because they got in the way of the agricultural expansion, esp. in the last century (the listed tombs in Rugia decreased from 236 in 1829 to 54 in the 1960ies, for example). Today, some 5,000 monuments are still known in the area occupied by the Funnelbeaker culture who erected those burials, but it is estimated that it once had been 500,000.
Collection of funnel beakers, Archaeological Museum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig
Let's have a look at the Funnelbeaker culture (German Trichterbecherkultur) that erected those impressive tombs. They are named for the characteristic shape of their pottery. The Funnelbeaker culture developed around 4300 BC when the hunter-gatherer societies north of a line along lower Elbe and middle Vistula – like the Ertebølle group – came in contact with farming and husbandry societies – like for example the Rössel culture – moving in from the south.
Neolithic House, Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen
The reconstruction follows the Rössen culture, but the houses of the Funnelbeakers weren't much different
The emerging Funnelbeaker culture adapted husbandry and farming as additional source of food, and developed a particular style of ceramic. The Funnelbeaker people kept sheep, cattle, pigs and goats, and grew primitive versions of wheat and barley. Hunting and fishing still played an important role. They traded in amber, flint and later in copper from Silesia, and invented the wheel. Their culture lasted until 2800 BC.
Neolithic House, interior (Oerlinghausen)
Their settlements concentrated in the coastal areas along the North Sea (Netherlands, north-west Germany, Denmark) and the Baltic Sea (southern Sweden, north-east Germany and Poland to the Vistula estuary). Most common were villages of several single family houses about 15 x 5 metres, made of timber and wattle-and-daub techniques. Later, longhouses of about 25 metres came into use as well. The villages were surrounded by palisades or wicker fences – not so much for defense, but rather as territorial marker.
Everstorf 4/314, closeup of the chamber with surrounding megaliths
Traces of villages have been found near several burial sites. Early Funnelbeaker burials continue the Ertebølle tradition of wooden chests covered by earthen mounds, sometimes marked with palisades or oaken beams. Those could accumulate into chambered cairns inside long barrows. The bodies were inhumated, usually lying flat on their back. Grave goods have been found, but they were not abundant. Flint tools and funnel beaker ware were most common, sometimes valuables like amber.
Everstorf, passage grave no. 1/311, with kerb megaliths in the foreground
Parallel to the earthen burials, the variants using stones developed and soon their use increased. Dolmen were the first to appear, sometimes within former sites of earthen barrows; then extended dolmen, gallery graves and passage graves, often with a kerb fence made of smaller megaliths and sandstone. Examples of crouched inhumation can be found in those. But often there is but an array of bones that don't make for complete skeleton; a puzzling finding (even taking into account that few bones remain due to the acidic soil of most locations) that has led to some doubts about interpreting those sites as tombs (see below).
Erratic boulders used to create a hunebed (Everstorf 1/311)
Why did megalith tombs become so popular with the Funnelbeakers? Well, we can thank the last Ice Age, the Weichselian Glaciation (Devensian in the UK, Winsconsin in the US), for that. It took place in several stages from 115,000 to 10,000 BC. During its maximum extent (57,000 – 15,000 BC), the Fenno-Scandian ice shield reached south into northern Germany, covering Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and parts of Lower Saxony. When the glaciers receded, they left behind an end moraine landscape, including lots of those lovely erratic boulders which later went into the Neolithic burials.
Everstorf, great dolmen Devil's Oven (2/312) seen from the side
Experiments have shown that the Funnelbeaker people used levers of wood, bone and stone, as well as artificially created slopeds to extract and transport the boulders which often weigh 2-5 tons and more. Erecting a hunebed with dolmen the size found in the Everstorf Forest would have required 100 people to work ten hours a day for 3.5 months.
That would need the effort of an entire village and likely a larger group, maybe several villages. Since the ground was frozen in winter, the only time remaining for the work was also needed for sowing and harvesting, so one can assume that it took longer, maybe more than one season, to erect the larger burials.
Lancken-Granitz, great dolmen (no. 2/503)
The function of those burials is still discussed. Since many of those burial sites could be reopened and have obviously been accessed more than once (passage graves, great dolmen), it has been assumed that it might have been family burials. The disarray of the bones could be explained by de-positioning older skeletons to lay out the recent body.
Another theory states that the visibility of the structures and the work involved in erecting them points at a function as tombs of important members of the society who may have been buried together with servants and/or spouses, though that would not explain the mess of bones.
Everstorf, passage grave no. 1/311, megaliths covering the chamber
Recently, an older theory has gained interest again: The barrows could have served as ossuaries where the bones were deposed after they had decayed in some other place. Perhaps not all bones were used, skulls and the long bones of the legs dominate the finds.
There are traces of rituals involving the burials: In a number of cases fires have been lit at the entrance, sometimes even inside the tombs. Sometimes the grave goods have been ritually destroyed at the site. Therefore we can assume that the burial sites served a wider ceremonial purpose than merely interring the dead.
Flint tools, funnel beakers and more, Archaeological Museum Schloss Gottorf
Johannes Müller: Großsteingräber, Grabenwerke, Langhügel – Frühe Monumentalbauten Mitteleuropas. Darmstadt, 2017
Chris Fowler, Jan Harding, Daniela Hofman: The Oxford Handbook of Neolithic Europe. Oxford University Press, 2015
The Megalith-Seiten by Thomas Witzke, for the details about the Everstorf megaliths.
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe on Orkney – Their Function in Iron Age Society
Brochs are quite frequent in northern Scotland; the remains of some 500 can be found on Orkney, Shetland, the western isles, and Caithness on the Scottish mainland down to the Great Glen. Further south, stone brochs are almost nonexistant. But few are as well preserved and impressive as the Broch of Gurness on the Orkney Mainland and Midhowe Broch on the island of Rousay.
Midhowe Broch with outer walls
The first essay about the brochs of Gurness and Midhowe will deal with the historical and socio-cultural context of the brochs, while further posts will have a closer look at the buildings themselves. Illustrations are from both brochs.
Broch of Gurness
The outer defense walls and dykes of Midhowe have partly collapsed or are bridged, but some local farmer found a new way to defend the building: The way leads some hundred metres across a meadow which had been freshly fertilised with slurry. I spent an hour cleaning my shoes in the evening. But it was worth some muck. Visiting its twin on the other side of the Eynhallow Sound, the Broch of Gurness, turned out to be less of an adventure.
Midhowe with the geo dyke in the foreground, seen from the south-east
Midhowe and Gurness are two of several brochs that once lined the shores of the Eynhallow Sound, but most of the others have been collapsed into heaps of stone, were slowly eroded by the sea, or are still buried under grass covered mounds.
Those brochs were built between 600 BC and 100 AD; the one of Midhowe dates to the later centuries BC, the Broch of Gurness to about 400 BC. They were in use at least until the first century AD, and may have been reused in the the 4th to 6th century AD.
Broch of Gurness, seen from the north-west
A broch is a circular drystone structure. The word derived from Old Norse borg which means 'fortification' (see also German Burg = castle). The same root can be found in the word ‘borough’.
The brochs developed out of the stone built roundhouses that were common in northern Scotland since the Bronze Age (in the south, roundhouses were mostly built of timber).
Midhowe, seen from the hill at the road
Those buildings were usually between five to ten metres high; sometimes even higher (the broch at Mousa on Shetland still rises to 13 metres). They usually have double walls with a staircase running inside the cleft to access the upper floors. The single entrance was a door on ground level, often with additional protections like double gates with a passage and guard chambers. Windows are seldom found, but the thatched roof had a louver.
Midhowe, the entrance
The interior of the ground floor level consisted of a central hearth (a feature already found in the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae) and a series of chambers along the wall which were partitioned off by stone slabs. Since the interior floors were made of timber, nothing remains to tell us the exact layout of the upper floors, but it seems that they were usually not partitioned. A smoke hole in the centre – which was also used to smoke meat and fish – went through all storeys.
The exact structure of the upper floors is still discussed since no timber features remained. In some cases, they may have been galleries overlooking the central hearth rather than complete storeys.
Gurness, the central hearth with some partitions in the background
It took architectural skills and engineering knowledge to erect those double walled structures. The base is wider to carry the weight of the stones, and the double walls not only offer space for a staircase, but were additionally stabilised by insertion of horizontal stone lintel slabs connecting both walls at intervals. That way, a broch could be built higher. The builders needed knowledge about stress and pressure of higher walls to achieve a balance. The roofs were thatched, probably in a domed layout to allow the water to run off. Stone was not used for those domes (other than in the – much lower– cairns).
Gurness, the double walls with lintel connections
The brochs across northern Scotland and the islands are built to a similar design. This has led to the theory of traveling master craftsmen who took up commissions for building brochs by chieftains who wanted a fashionable abode. This theory has recently been confirmed by Dr. Dimitris Theodossopolous, Lecturer of Architectural Technology and Conservation at the University of Edinburgh, who specialises in broch architecture. Makes you wonder where they learned their craft and if there was some sort of centre, a school of broch building somewhere. As far as I could find out, there are no examples of less well built 'test' versions of brochs (like it is assumed for the Bent Pyramid).
Midhowe, additional buttresses along the collapsed wall
Sometimes broch walls did collapse, though. Midhowe is an example – it has been repaired by putting stone slabs against the wall as additional buttresses.
It had been assumed that there was an inherent weakness in the construction that led to damage during the use over time, but Dr. Theodossopolous thinks it more likely that the damage was caused by geological shifts. Coastal erosion can lead to a minimal sinking of the rocks some distance inland, and such a small shift would be enough to lead to cracks in the drystone walls which would then widen with the inflow of rainwater and frost. He demonstrated the stability of a broch in a model where the collapse of a part of the wall only happened when he destabilised the basis.
Midhowe, interior of the broch with hearth
Today, the landscape of Orkney consists mostly of meadows, heather and some bogs, with almost no trees. But once the islands were covered by dense forests of hazel, birch and willow on the lower levels; the hills were covered by open woodlands, meadows and heath. Human activities and climate changes led to a significant decline in forests in the late Neolithic / Chalcolithic (3,500 BC) – which is the reason stone was used as building material in increasing amounts.
Typical Orkney landscape today
During the Bronze Age, the temperature dropped, while at the same time the rainfalls increased, which led to a spread of peat bogs and heath at the cost of farmland. By the middle of the Bronze Age, the fertile soil concentrated in the low parts of the islands, and by 600 BC, Orkney looked pretty much like today (except for the modern buildings), with the same wet and windy weather.
Midhowe, view to broch with outer walls in the foreground
It is assumed that the climate change and decrease of farmland led to a change in society and perhaps to a time of unrest as well, since the patches of fertile land were contested. We don’t know much about the structure of society at the time, but it is likely that the people were organised in tribes or clans, led by a chieftain. Weaponry – together with other items – changed from bronze to iron, which may have had an effect on society.
Gurness, outer walls and dyke
The question whether the brochs were defensive structures or monuments of some sort is still discussed.
Brochs would have stood out in the landscape as monuments, but there are defensive structures like additional outer walls and dykes as well. And the broch walls itself would have been almost impossible to break with the technology of the time. Another argument if favour of defenses are the elaborate entrances laid out to control who entered the broch. Though no broch shows traces of armed conflict, like a burnt layer or delibarate destruction.
Gurness, double gate entrance
On the other hand, space within a broch was limited, though the inhabitants of the surrounding villages (see below) may have been able to gather inside at need, if not their cattle. Not all brochs seem to have had wells or cisterns with access from inside the broch (though the existence of such a well is possible in Gurness), which would have made withstanding a prolonged siege difficult. Therefore, it is argued, brochs were more likely a status symbol of a ruling elite who could command the resources to erect such a building.
A final answer may never be found, and maybe brochs could serve in both functions, as symbol and as final refuge in case of armed conflict.
Midhowe, guard cell in the entrance
Material finds in the brochs and surroundings show that the people of Iron Age Orkney were craftsmen working in stone and bone, bronze and later iron (a centre of iron forging was at Minehowe in Tankerness), and farmers and hunters. They kept cattle for milk and meat, as well as goats, pigs and hens. They also hunted, though venison was not a major part of their diet. Some grain, esp. barley, was grown, and fishing common along the coastlines and rivers. But cattle seems to have been their measure of wealth.
Orkney coastal landscape (view from the Brough of Birsay)
Trade routes – mostly by sea – extended to the rest of the British Isles and probably beyond to the coasts of Scandinavia and the continent. Among the items found in Midhowe (and some other sites like Minehowe) are artefacts of Roman origin, like terra sigillata and bronze fibulae. Paulus Orosius’ tale about Orcadian chieftains submitting to the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 (Historiae adversum paganos, written ca. 385-420, long after the events) can be discarded as source. The first direct contact with Romans may have taken place when Agricola’s fleet circumnavigated Scotland in AD 84. But those items were most likely obtained by trade with southern Britain.
Gurness, remains of the surrounding village
There are two different types of broch, those that stood alone, and those surrounded by villages. The latter type is more frequent on Orkney; both Gurness and Midhowe have villages. The village surrounding the Broch of Gurness is a particularly extensive one. The village at Midhowe may have been built after the broch, but that is now questioned. In both cases, the villages are protected by additional outer walls.
The houses were partly built into the ground; they must have been pretty dark and crowded in winter. I could not find any information about the number of people who lived in those villages; maybe a realistic estimation proves impossible anyway.
Midhowe, house in the village
The development of centres like the broch and village systems points at a change in society from scattered farms to a more stratified society with a leader – likely a leading family – and dependent people who settled close to the broch. This cluster would offer better safety, but also allow the chieftain to draw upon the resources of the people under his 'rule' or what it might be called. Building brochs would need many hands. Did their impressive size enhance the power only of the leader, or of the entire local society? We probably will never know.
Gurness, view out of the entrance to the village remains
We know little about the way those 'kernels of society' interacted. It has been suggested that there was some sort of high chief who held ruled over a group of broch leaders, but alternatively, the defensive structures of the broch and village complexes may have developed due to local feuds and / or as territorial claims, and a 'broch community' was the common unit. I think the latter is the more likely scenario.
The sea was an important part in life of Iron Age people of Orkney and northern Scotland, as the location of the brochs at the coast shows (also, that way they did not take up precious fertile soil further inland). We know that trade and fishing played a role; operations involving larger fleets have been discussed, but are not deemed likely.
Gurness, broch with village remains and outer walls in the foreground
Both Gurness and Midhowe were excavated in 1929/1930; Gurness by J.S. Richardson (who rarely left his base in Edingburgh to visit the site), Midhowe by G. Callander and Walter Grant. At that time, archaeologists were more interested in artefacts than in the construction of the brochs themselves. More excavations were done in the 1980ies, and research of the brochs is going on today, including modern methods like models and computer animations.
Gurness, view from village across the Eynhallow Sound towards Midhowe
The brochs were abandoned around AD 100. In some cases, the villages were re-used at a later time (for example the shamrock house at Gurness which dates to the 4th or 5th century and was built into the remains of the village, using the old stones). The last visitors who may have used the old settlements were the Vikings who left behind a grave at Gurness.
Often the old structures were later used as quarries, which contributed to the damage of brochs and villages. Over time, the villages filled with debris and earth and were grown over with grass, so that only the remains of the brochs are visible.
View to Midhowe (with the modern sea wall) from the distance
Noel Fojur: The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe – The official souvenir guide. Historic Scotland, 2008.
Essays on the Orkneyjar Website; essays on the Odyssey Website; summary of a lecture by Dr. Dimitris Theodossopolous held on June 12th, 2020, via The Caithness Broch Project.
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
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All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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