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Andrys Onsman
[To Andrys Onsman’ index]


Text and photographs by Andrys Onsman,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ©2010

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Travels collection as well.]

The thing about things like Google I-phones and NavSat is that you can but don’t have to use them. I suppose I could find out everything there is to know about prehistoric burial mounds by searching the Internet but reading what my Lowlands colleague Arend Victorie has to say about them is much more stimulating. And im­por­tant­ly, it’s enough because the rest I can either remember or imagine. So, this is an unsubstantiated flight of fancy: if you are looking for background information for a school assignment or to win an argument at a dinner party, you’re in the wrong place.

All around the lowlands and beyond, there are rock-strewn variations on the age-old theme of how to deal with the dead. The easiest explanation is that at some stage people didn’t want their dead to be exposed to the elements and wild animals, so they covered the bodies with stones. Eventually the cairns became more and more ela­bor­ate  until you get Karnag and eventually Stonehenge, intricate constructions with at­ten­dants, rituals, astrological significance and awe. And then when things became less to do with the dead than with the dead person’s desire to be remembered after he was dead, you get Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which is weird, wonderful and a waste all at the same time.

Our modern day response to the remnants of the dead has undoubtedly been fashioned by previous centuries’ romanticisation of all things supernatural and indigenous. Our understanding of these burial mounds has been shaped indelibly by everything from Rousseau’s armchair exultation of the naturally primitive to the Romantics’ placement of God in Nature rather than above it. It’s along way from piling stones onto a corpse to ward off the wolves and the main thing to remember is that we’re guessing.

In the far northern part of the Netherlands, school children inevitably visit the Hunebedden in Drenthe. I had always thought that the name meant that they were the final resting place of Huns or, if I thought in Frisian, of dogs. As a child, I was fascinated by the structures and had no hesitation in crawling into them. Nowadays Health and Safety officials would have a heart attack, but in the faraway 1960s, it was still possible to touch real things. The construction hadn’t fallen down for thousands of years; a skinny little kid on hands and knees wasn’t going to do any major damage.

Our class had been on the bus for hours so when its doors opened, we exploded onto the moraine landscape of northern Drenthe like buckshot, ignoring all commands to stop until we were exhausted enough to pretend compliance. Ten year olds are like that. Undoubtedly the teachers told us what we could and could not do, when and where we could do it and so on and so forth, and undoubtedly we made out that we listening, nodding and saying, “Ja, Meneer” at the appropriate times. And then my best friend Roelof and I were off, legs like splinters, eyes as big as saucers, searching for whatever held our interest  which happened to be a big pile of stones that you could crawl into. Two little boys sitting still under a canopy of rock, giggling and hiding from the others until the stink of the place drove us out again.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit other such sites. Karnag (Carnac in English) in Breizh (Brittany in English) was hugely impressive and impressively huge. So many plinths  and the first thing that came to mind was Obelix, the obelisk delivery man who was so strong because he’d fallen into magic elixir as a baby. Along with Kuifje (‘Tin Tin’ in English), Asterix en Obelix was the comic books of choice in our family. Maybe that is the secret of Karnag: it was Obelix’ menhir storage place, like a second-hand car lot. Customers could come in, choose their memorial, get a “special deal because I like the look of you. I won’t be making anything on it, trust me!” and another happy punter leaves. I can hear my archaeological colleagues cursing René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo but just look at the neat rows in the photo below. And that’s just the half of it: the rows go for miles in the other direction as well.

But not all of Karnag is rows of menhirs. The photo below shows that in one little corner of Karnag is a construction very similar to the one in Drenthe. It seems a little out of place, tucked away in a corner, as if it is a bit of an embarrassment, not quite in keeping with the grandeur of the rest of the site. It has the same layout as its northern counterpart and to my untrained and excitable mind it was the original, the place where the area’s body storing business was first done. Other burial mounds were added nearby as needed and the rows of standing stones are simply ostentatious or­na­ment­a­tion; a sort of Palaeolithic Rococo. I’m not claiming it as fact but those hot-blooded southerners do like that sort of things  although that is probably the first time that the people of Breizh have been called hot-blooded or southerners!

The structure of the burial mound here is simple  there is a direct connection with the earth here that no organised religion can boast  but there is also an understated elegance, a desire to be neat, to be effective and purposeful. In these chambers we bury our dead. When you realise that this was built three thousand years ago, you can’t help but be impressed. Without bulldozers and cranes, it was an amazing feat of physical engineering done for the dead, which makes me think that they must have had a very different idea of what being dead actually is. Nowadays we spend much more effort on accommodating the living rather than the dead because we have concretised the distinction between them so irrevocably. Nowadays we are “dead and buried” or we have “passed away”. Such certainty would have been unlikely before we invented God  or God invented us.

I’ve visited quite a few of similar sites, from different eras and in different places. One of the best was on the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago off the coast of Cornwell where there are lots of Hunebedden and until recently you could simply wander around and poke your nose in as you pleased. There was hardly another soul about and on the one hand I wouldn’t have minded someone knowledgeable to explain things and warn me where not to tread but on the other it was a return to a more innocent age when I simply made stuff up to fit with what I saw. Come to think of it, nothing much has changed in that regard.

On the Scilly islands there were no gates, no toll booths, no exit via the gift shop, no hurrying to get back on the bus, no one warning you to keep behind the ropes, like there is, for example, around Stonehenge. Actually I found the whole Stonehenge experience a bit disappointing: but I guess had it been the middle of a winter’s night with thunder and lightning I may have been more impressed. As it was, spending a dull autumn afternoon next to a busy motorway looking at disappointingly small stones standing or lying on neatly manicure lawns doesn’t really allow for any sort of romance. And you pay €20 for the privilege.

Recently I went back to Drenthe to see the Hunebedden again. At first they too had shrunk to a disappointing shadow of their former selves, but after a while they resumed their stature. It may look like a pile of big stones but what you are looking at is the skeleton of a building, the bare bones of what would have been a long dark chamber, intersecting with another long dark chamber to form a cross shaped construction, which gives you a central room in the middle of the cross. You have to imagine the walls filled in with smaller stones and then covered with soil, forming a large hill, a tumulus, in which there were chambers. Apparently the smaller stones were taken away to be used as road fill and the soil just washed away. To give you an idea of the scale here is a snap of various family members posing in front of the remaining stones.

There is a rumour that before Saint Boniface introduced the gospels to the pagan Frisians (it was long before Drenthe became a province, so I am claiming it fro Fryslân), sacrificial blood was spilt to appease the angry gods. There’s another rumour that a local priest started the first rumour, which turns the first rumour into Public Relations spin. Having long been a fan of Woden and Eostre I’m having none of it, anyway. I think the burial mounds are irrefutable proof of a people who took great pains to look after their dead because their spirits were still there amongst the living, whispering in their ears. And as the bardic Arend Victorie tells us, there is a religiosity that seems to have seeped into these stones. You have to spend some time there and let your imagination run freely before it reveals itself to you  otherwise it’s just a pile of monumental boulders, but it’s worth the effort.

Next time I am in the area, I am going to find Hunebed D49, also known by the much more evocative name of the ‘papeloze kerk’ that Arend talks about elsewhere on this site. He tells us that the early Protestants used to hold clandestine services there. I guess that is an example of the Christ religion superimposing itself on the infrastructure of the traditional belief systems, but it only takes a little digging to get past that. And anyway the main reason I am following Arend’s signpost is that apparently you can still crawl into it. I might give Roelof a call: it looks like there is enough room inside for two.

[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

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