The „Straße der Megalithkultur“ in northwest Germany
The origin of the Association for “Megalithic Routes” is the “Straße der Megalithkultur”, a tourist holiday route in northwest Germany. It was launched in 2006 by a group of tourism experts, archaeologists, astronomers, and historians with the aim of introducing the 5000 year-old “Hünengräber” (megalithic graves) as a new trademark of the regions Osnabrücker Land, Emsland, and Wildeshausen Geest. In each of these regions there are centres with an accumulation of megalithic burials.
The monuments consist mostly of so-called passage graves. In terms of construction, they differ markedly from their namesakes in Denmark and southern Scandinavia, but they show great similarity to the “Hunebedden” in Drenthe province in The Netherlands.
In northwest Germany, numerous historical documents, stories and legends are evidence of the great significance that megalithic graves have had for the imaginative world and popular beliefs of the local population since the Middle Ages. Many burials have been given unusual names which are reminiscent of the devil, of creatures with supernatural powers, and legendary popular heroes.
The “Straße der Megalithkultur” connects the towns of Osnabrück, Meppen, and Oldenburg, is 330 km long, and combines the historically most interesting, most attractive, and most well-preserved megalithic graves. Since 27 April 2014, the Europe-wide “Day of Megalithic Culture”, a fully signposted cycle path complements the holiday route for road traffic which was opened in 2009. In addition, there is a supraregional hiking trail, the “Hünenweg”, which connects the regions Osnabrücker Land, Emsland, and Drenthe province in The Netherlands and was opened in 2005.
The Osnabrücker Land region
The town of Osnabrück is located at the southern end of the “Straße der Megalithkultur”. This is where the North German plain merges into the Westphalian hill country and also where the distribution of the northwest German passage graves ends. In this area, many archaeological sites are associated with the names of famous military leaders from the time of the Saxon Wars (772–804 AD) such as one of the extremely rare megalithic graves made of local rock. It is known as Karlsteine. The legend goes that Karl, King of the Franks, smashed the giant capstone into three pieces with his riding crop. The wife of his adversary Widukind, the Saxon leader, is said to be buried nearby below the Gevasteine – also a Neolithic passage grave from the second half of the fourth millennium BC.
There is a further unusual megalithic construction in Hekese, in the northern part of the Osnabrücker Land. Two separate burial chambers are situated 53 m apart, although they obviously belong together because a row of closely set boulders has been placed between them.
The Emsland region
The origin of the term “Hünengrab”, which is still common in northwest Germany today, probably lies in the Emsland region because this is the home of the famous Universalist Johan Picardt. In 1660 he published his theses of the “cruel and barbaric giants, Hünen or collossi” as the builders of the megalithic graves. But some courageous people who armed themselves with heavy wooden clubs had managed to put these tyrants to flight.
Most of the monuments formerly existing in the Emsland region are now destroyed because the sale of the boulders as building material to the neighbouring Netherlands became a lucrative business in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, around the middle of the 19th century, the idea of the protection of historical monuments gained acceptance. As a result, more than 60 impressive relics of the megalithic culture have survived, including the grave in Thuine with an exceptionally elaborate enclosure consisting of a double stone row, and the accumulation of nine megalithic graves in the Hümmling hills (originally 22), which are arranged such that they can rightly be called the “Hünengräberstraße des Hümmling”.
The Wildeshausen Geest region
To the south of Oldenburg lies the district capital of Wildeshausen – famous for its St. Alexander church built in the 9th century and containing the relics of Saint Alexander of Rome. Equally well known are the numerous remains of megalithic culture in the surrounding environment, namely the nature park Wildeshausen Geest. Here several so-called “Hünenbetten” are located, with length up to 104m long and originally constructed of a maximum of 170 boulders per burial. These are considered to be the biggest surviving burials from the Funnel Beaker culture. But the Wildeshausen Geest region seems to have been an attractive settlement area in the Bronze Age too because numerous burial mounds were built in the immediate neighbourhood of the megalithic graves. Particularly famous is the “Pestruper Gräberfeld” which contains more than 500 burials and is considered to be the biggest surviving, above-ground prehistoric cemetery in Central Europe. For this reason the Wildeshausen Geest region is generally and rightly known as a “prehistoric centre”.
The “Straße der Megalithkultur” ends at the “Landesmuseum für Natur and Mensch” in the nearby town of Oldenburg. In a permanent exhibition of modern design, the museum shows the eventful history of the close relationship between humankind and nature spanning more than 6000 years.
Rüdiger Kelm, Die Europäische Route der Megalithkultur in Schleswig-Holstein – Ergebnisse eines archäologischen Vermittlungsprojektes zwischen denkmalbasierter Forschung und Kulturtourismus, in: Arkæologi i Slesvig / Archäologie in Schleswig, Bd. 18 – 2020