The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

29 Jun 2020
  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.

Feiner Beitrag! Im Everstorfer Forst sind wir schon oft gewesen. Ich habe auch bei mir im Blog darüber berichtet.
Liebe Grüße von der Silberdistel
Vielen Dank, liebe Silberdistel. Ich habe deinen Blog damals gefunden, als ich nach Informationen über den Everstorfer Forst gegoogelt habe. Ist auch schon wieder ein paar Jahre her.
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern 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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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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Alv Erlingsson of Tønsberg


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Stone Burials of the Funnelbeaker Culture

Development of Civilisation
European Bread Museum, Ebergötzen
Hutewald Project in the Solling
Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen


Neolithic Orkney
The Neolithic Landscape of Orkney
Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae
Life in Skara Brae

Bronze Age / Iron Age
Clava Cairns
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe - Their Function in Iron Age Society


The Ship Setting of Gnisvärd

Post-Mediaeval History

Explorers and Discoveries

Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)


European Nobility
Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus


History in Literature and Music

History and Literature

The Weimar Classicism
The Weimar Classicism - Introduction

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane
Short Biography of Theodor Fontane
(Some of Fontane's Ballads, translated by me)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Not so Serious History

Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Mediaeval Times
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Rules for Writing Scottish Romances
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs
Sandstone Formations: Daneil's Cave
Sandstone Formations: Devil's Wall
Sandstone Formations: The Klus Rock

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations
Salt Springs at the Werra

Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite

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