The prehistoric route in Ringelmose Wood
The earliest Neolithic period, fourth millennium BC
The biggest change in the history of mankind occurred when people began to cultivate the land.
From living as nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishermen, the population now became sedentary peasants, growing crops and keeping livestock. In Denmark, this significant change took place ca 4,000 BC. Some five hundred years later, agriculture became the principal occupation and there are several finds from this time.
From pollen samples, we can see that the peasants cut down the primeval forest which covered the whole country at this time. Stone-Age peasants cleared the forest with large, finely-polished flint axes. Afterwards, they burnt and cleared the land which they ploughed using the primitive ard plough. During this period, beautiful pottery was produced, often carefully decorated.
Clay vessel from the time when dolmens and passage graves were built. Find from Sarup, Funen . Pictures: Moesgaard Museum
From having constantly moved about, the Stone-Age people now became sedentary, living at the same place all year round. Only a couple of families are likely to have lived together in well-built long houses. Since the families were no longer constantly on the move, they did not need to carry their children. This meant that they could have more children and the population grew.
At the same time, agriculture, if properly administered, provided the peasants with a constant source of food.
Model for Moesgaard Museum – not on display – of a settlement from the Neolithic period. We see some of the wood, the burning of it, the newly-ploughed field, and the settlement with a house. Model: Reinar Merke.
Becoming sedentary peasants amounted to a major upheaval, requiring the coordinated work of many people. The peasants had to plan, successfully grow the crops, and obtain seed grain as well as tilling the fields. After a few years, the fields were depleted and to obtain new land to cultivate, the peasants had to help each other cut down the primeval forest and clear it of large rocks and roots. Only then were they able to grow grain, chiefly emmer and barley. The peasants also kept livestock such as cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, which had to be fed and looked after by joint effort.
Agriculture first emerged in the Middle East around 10,000 BC in the northern part of Iran, Iraq, and Syria as well as the southern part of Turkey. Very gradually, it percolated north, reaching Danish territory some 6,000 years later.
In tandem with farming gaining ground in the Danish territory, Stone-Age people started constructing monumental buildings, many of which are still around for us to see. These are long barrows/Barkær features, dolmens, and passage graves. These monuments testify to the capacity for coordinating complex tasks. In the Mols Bjerge National Park, we have a fine conglomeration of dolmens with a variety of constructions and expressions.
The function of megalithic tombs
Dolmens are often described as graves for chieftains. Although hundreds of dolmens have been excavated, very few of them contain human remains and, if they do, they are often reburials. So, the skeletal fragments buried in these few dolmens had first been buried elsewhere. We can only assume that the oldest types of dolmens were used for burials, but even here, we lack convincing finds. Consequently, there is nothing to indicate that the dolmens were built for the burial of people such as clan chieftains.
We have no traces from the Neolithic period to indicate that communities were divided socially. To be able to say this for sure would mean the discovery of graves from this period containing rich grave goods as well as settlements where at least one house was bigger and better built than the others. Only much later in the prehistoric period do we find traces of social division in communities.
The megalithic tombs of the Neolithic period – dolmens and passage graves
There are around 5,000 protected dolmens in Denmark and we know the whereabouts of another couple of thousand features, now destroyed. Experts estimate that some 30,000 dolmens were built in Denmark. This means that we have one of the densest concentrations of megalithic tombs anywhere in the world. However, our monuments are not as big as those found in Brittany, Ireland, the Algarve, Andalusia, and on Malta. This is because our moraine rocks are considerably smaller.
The Danish dolmens were built over a short period of only two hundred years from 3,500 to 3,300 BC. The dolmens always feature at least four vertical upright megaliths and one capstone.
The dolmens may vary in shape – see the illustration below.
Ground plans of burial chambers
The oldest dolmens known to us are enclosed, resembling plank coffins. These had no access to the burial chamber. The Barkær dolmen in the north-westernmost corner of the National Park is the oldest known example of this type. The enclosed dolmens may have been used to bury whole bodies and are usually covered by earth mounds. This type of dolmen is contemporary with similar types built with wooden planks – also found at Barkær.
The next type of dolmen contains a lower stone at one narrow side, providing access to the chamber. This suggests a rather different view of the dolmen which is no longer covered by earth.
A third type of dolmen has an entrance area consisting of a passage featuring one or two sets of passage stones. There were no capstones covering this passage.
The final development is a polygonal dolmen with a passage. See the Poskær and Kalø Stordysse (Great Long Barrow).
Dolmens can stand alone or they may be encircled by barrow circle stones. If the barrow circle stones are placed in a circular shape, the barrow is known as a round barrow. If, however, the dolmen is inside a rectangular row of stones, it is known as a long barrow.
Some of the isolated dolmens we see today were originally encircled by barrow circle stones, such as Torup Nord.
From an architectural perspective, it is interesting to note that Stone-Age people, in this way, enclosed the area where the dolmen was placed. Moreover, it is intriguing that the barrow circle stones may vary greatly in size. This is particularly noticeable in the Mols Bjerge National Park where the dolmen Poskær Stenhus, the round barrow Stenkirken, and Kalø Stordysse (Great Long Barrow) feature almost two-metre-high barrow circle stones whereas the round barrows in Ringelmose Wood feature barrow circle stones measuring maximum half-a-metre across.
The round barrows measure between seven and fifteen metres in diameter whereas the long barrows are usually between ten and thirty metres long and around ten metres wide. The longest, however, measure almost one hundred and seventy metres in length.
Passage graves are quite a different type of megalithic tomb. They were built around 3,200 BC and consist of a regular stone chamber placed inside an earth mound. The chamber has a stone-lined passage, reaching as far as, and integrated into, the barrow circle. The passage is covered by capstones and the whole thing is covered by an earth mound, unlike dolmens, which are never covered. That is to say that the passage graves were intended to remain invisible, quite different in their expression to the dolmens. A fine example of a passage grave is the Barkær Jættestue, featuring a long passage and a fine round barrow with a barrow circle.
Pie chart of a passage grave. We can see how the earth-covered burial chamber is built. Drawing: Flemming Bau
There are around five hundred protected passage graves in Denmark. Most of them placed in round barrows but some of them in long barrows – often reused long dolmens. On the islands Lolland-Falster, they were originally placed in long barrows. The burial mound Kongehøjen west of Mariager contains two passage graves inside a very imposing long dolmen.