Stone me! Digging out the truth of Limburg’s prehistoric rocks

Summary

A local archaeologist has got to the bottom of remarkable rumours about ancient stone circles in Diepenbeek – and it’s highly unlikely the devil was involved

Imaginary history

Back in 1981, Panorama, a popular, rather sensational news magazine, published an edition with a remarkable cover. On what appears to be an archaeological site, five men stand in a pit, surrounded by a circle of large stones. It looks like a prehistoric monument right there in Limburg province.

It should have been a major discovery. But it wasn’t.

Guido Creemers, conservator at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, lives in Diepenbeek, where the photo was taken, and recalls the infamous article well. “I remember that it caused quite a stir,” he says. “The excavations were an initiative of the local heritage organisation Alvermenneke. They were convinced that Diepenbeek hid a megalithic structure. And indeed, they did find large stones. It made national headlines.”

In reality, the amateur archaeologists found a large concentration of boulders. Because they were so convinced that Diepenbeek was hiding megalithic structures under its ground, they placed the stones in a circle themselves.

Not exactly a sound scientific method, but still interesting, says Creemers. “In a sense, these amateur archaeologists wrote a piece of imaginary history.”

The making of a story

While doing research for a recent academic article he published on the debate surrounding Diepenbeek’s presumed "prehistoric monuments", Creemers spoke with the members of the local history and heritage group and took a look at the log books of old excavations.

“It is clear now that the people involved in the excavation let their imaginations run wild,” he says. “They even called on a water diviner to help them locate the stones. But the concentration of large stones are simply a geological phenomenon – albeit a rare one.”

It was no coincidence that the people of Diepenbeek went digging for their own Stonehenge. The story started in 1862, when amateur archaeologist H Schuermans described the stones of Diepenbeek as possible prehistoric monuments.

Mysteries like these give rise to tall tales that tend to stick around in the collective memory

- Guido Creemers

Constant Bamps, a collector and amateur archaeologist, went into more detail in essays a few years later, supporting Schuermans’ suspicions. Historians debunked their hypotheses at the time, but a legend was nonetheless born.

Fast forward to 2016, when a local farmer hit a big boulder with his plough. In the end, he turned over about 20 tonnes of boulders, reason enough for Creemers and his colleague Roland Dreesen, a geologist, to write an essay on the finding.

“We have made our conclusion,” they wrote. “The stones of Diepenbeek are a natural phenomenon.”

A need for meaning

The boulders, which can be found not only in Diepenbeek but scattered all across Limburg, are sandstones, shaped over time by erosion. “They are similar to other stones in Limburg, like the Holsteen in Zonhoven and the Duivelssteen in Langerlo,” explains Creemers.

The fact that the boulders are naturally occurring geological formations does not detract from the stories of the people who gave meaning to them, says Creemers. Such stones, which seem to pop up from out of nowhere, have always inspired people.

The boulders of Zonhoven and Langerlo are also the subject of legends, leading to a significant number of stories about the devil stemming from Diepenbeek and surroundings. “In the past, it was impossible for people to explain the origins of these boulders,” Creemers explains. “Mysteries like these give rise to tall tales that tend to stick around in the collective memory. Even today, some websites on possible megalithic sites still mention Diepenbeek. It is a very persistent story.”

Photo: The totally faked magazine cover that rocked Limburg's world

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