Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/On the Primeval Antiquities of the Channel Islands

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2678605Archaeological Journal, Volume 1 — On the Primeval Antiquities of the Channel Islands1845Frederick Corbin Lukis


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The Trepied on Catioroc.

The cromlechs of the Channel Islands, from whose enclosures, intermixed with the vestiges of mortality, have been obtained a variety of stone instruments, well adapted to the necessities of a rude and simple people inhabiting the wilds of a primitive country, vary in their arrangement and construction precisely in the same manner as has been observed in other countries.

It has been remarked that several of them are placed nearly east and west; this is often the case in these islands as well as in France, but whether from accident or design, it is difficult to decide: many in Brittany are due north and south; two out of three at L'ancresse in this island, are also in that position; and in the plain in the island of Herm, one due east and west is only 30 feet distant from another north-west and south-east; with this exception, all the large cromlechs, in Guernsey at least, are placed east and west.

The general shape and position of the stones differ in no respect from those of other countries, except in size and material. Large and ponderous granite blocks, supported on massive props, (usually placed with the smaller ends downward,) constitute this lonely chamber of the dead. Occupying the interstices of the props are found smaller stone works, so wedged and adapted as to prevent the falling in of the ground, or tumulus, which accompanies the sepulchre. A large circle of single upright stones planted at uniform distances from each other, and from the first stones laid down, completes the structure under consideration. A slab, or a flat pavement, is often seen beneath the deposit within it, and where such is wanting, I have usually remarked a firm, clean, and level base. All these slight differences of construction may frequently be accounted for, from circumstances occasioned by the localities where they exist. It has been customary to give different appellations to these structures, according to their shape and form, or agreeably to the hypothesis endeavoured to be maintained. From the foregoing observations it will be easily perceived, that whether the cromlechs partake of the circular or square form, or are directed either east or northward, their design remains the same. I may, however, further state, as regards the object intended, that several simple circles of stones of small dimensions, which would have constituted the bardic circles of the poets, have been opened in these islands, and have presented in like manner the mixed remains of our species, with rude works of art.

The fine and interesting monument of primeval architecture, once consecrating the island of Jersey, was formed of a circle of small cromlechs, with a covered avenue leading into the interior. The one now existing on the hill at the Couperon in that island, is of a rectangular form, and has not yet been accurately examined. The early people whose memorials we are investigating, occupied these countries during a long series of years. On this ground among others we may account for many of the variations observable in their constructions. The description of one cromlech might, prima facie, be considered as a type of all such structures; but in the present state of our knowledge it is necessary to give these particulars, as they tend to elucidate a subject on which so much has yet to be learnt. The period we have assigned to their construction, involving the manners and customs of an early race, requires every little fact to be noted, every detail to be given, during the exploring of those few remains which have escaped the ravages of time for our contemplation. With this view it has been my practice on approaching a locality intended to be examined, to proceed with caution. An accurate plan and sketch are taken of such appearances as present themselves before working. All the undulations of the surface near the spot are observed; a slight ascent of a few inches towards the suspected site has often proved a valuable indication, and tended to confirm the question of a recent or primeval disturbance of the original ground; a dry or barren portion of land has often pointed to a shallow depth of soil, resting over a concealed grave or catacomb. These few remarks are added to those already made in the first part of these observations, intended for the use of the student[1].

It may be safely imagined that during the period when the Danes and Northmen issued from their haunts, spreading dis- may and terror over the lands on either side of the British Channel, and when they extended their rapine around the shores of ancient Gaul, that the "moraye" or "place of the dead" became, as in more modern times, an object of their diligent search for those treasures which might have been therein deposited. These, like the tombs of the east, fell a prey to their rapacity; destruction of their more friable contents followed, all that was valuable was removed, and this may account for the few substances which have been discovered entire, and shews why so many fragments are now found strewed exteriorly, immediately beneath the surface. These devastations may have been begun by the Romans, or by those nations which replaced the original inhabitants of Western Europe. Roman coins are not unfrequently found mixed with the ancient Gaulish, in the vicinity of these localities; but the original deposit contains no trace of metal, as far as my observations have extended. The absence of these memorials of the dead in the neighbourhood of large towns, may be attributed to the increase of population and civilization, their gradual removal keeping pace with improvements, or the agricultural clearing of the ground. Even in the Channel islands many have disappeared. The Rev. Mr. Falle, who wrote in the year 1734, mentions that many were observable in his day. Another writer, quoting a MS. which belonged to James II., now in the Harleian Collection, entitled "Cæsarea," states "there are in Jersey about half a hundred of them." Mr. Poingdestre, formerly Lieutenant Bailiff of Jersey, says that he "found about fifty collections of stones in that island," and he "reckoned only those which were visible above ground." It is a painful statement now to make, that not more than five or six monuments of this ancient period can be enumerated, including that curious and extraordinary arrangement of stones and cromlechs, which in a moment of enthusiasm and loyalty, was voted and presented to General Conway, then Governor of the island, and which were afterwards absurdly erected in his park, near Henley-upon-Thames, where they stand a monument of exile and mistaken liberality.

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South view of a small Cromlech at L'ancresse.

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South view of the Cromlech at La Mare aux Mauves, L'ancresse.

The two small cromlechs here represented, are both on the plain of L'ancresse in Guernsey; they consist of props and capstone, and have their openings to the southward; several portions of earthen vessels, celts, and arrow-points, were discovered in them in 1838; the quality of the pottery was of a finer description in several instances than that of the large cromlech on the hill near them. The stone celts found were so placed among the contents as to preclude the possibility of their having had any handles, or of their being attached and fixed, as has been supposed; none are perforated, as mentioned by Mons. Mahé, neither do they seem conveniently made for being fixed into a frame, as supposed by other authors; the high state of polish they possess disqualifying them for being thus held. Their very perfect and symmetrical shape and smooth surfaces, would indicate that they were used in the hand for cutting purposes, and as attempts at ornament are discoverable on several of those of Guernsey, it cannot be doubted that they had some particular and distinct use. The polished edge renders them capable of being admirably adapted for flaying animals, and perhaps used afterwards for cutting the green hide into thongs and cordage.

That they may have been used for a variety of purposes may be well conceived amongst a people apparently deprived of metal implements. The heavy wedge-shaped celt most probably was used for hewing down trees, and the splitting of timber into planks; indeed those splendid stone celts found in Scandinavia seem to have been formed for that end, and adapted with a great degree of art for this purpose.

The term "celt," applied to this instrument, however admissible to a stone or flint-cutting tool, should be restricted to it; the metal ferrule, with a small ring attached to one side, requires another appellation; the use of this last has been also a matter of conjecture among collectors. If these were fixed in a straight or crooked handle, as proposed by some, it would render them unfit for use, and equally inconvenient for making a stroke in the manner of a chisel. "La petite hache en cuivre," is a term designating this instrument in France. No less than eighty of these were found some years since in the parish of La Trinité in Jersey; a few were also discovered on the common lately brought into cultivation in the island of Alderney. After examining the cutting edge of these weapons, I could not observe much wearing away by use, and the manner of fracture of some of them would rather denote their having been broken in combat or by violence. The small ring attached to each may have been for the convenience of transport or attachment. The elegant spear-head of bronze, found also with them in Alderney, could scarcely be used indiscriminately for the same purpose, but if fixed to the end of the lance as a ferrule, they would deal out a deadly blow on a horse, or armed foe.

About one hundred stone celts have been picked up from time to time in Guernsey, where they are, as every where else, called "thunder-bolts," or in the dialect of the country, "coin de foudre." They vary in size from that of 1 to 13 inches, and are most commonly made of fine-grained stones. Out of fifty in my cabinet only six are of flint, the rest are of jade or choloritic rock, serpentine and primitive greenstone, agate and porphyry, quartz and prehnite, and two or three are of syenite. The stone hatchets or axes, intended to be supplied with a handle, are perforated, and are beautifully shaped and polished. These latter instruments denote a higher state of civilization, but as they have been found in or near the Pouquelayes of this island, they must be considered as of the primeval period. In the cromlechs here described were also found gritstones, fitted for setting and polishing these stone instruments.

Another large cromlech, known by the name of L'autel Du Tus, or De Hus, stands upon a rising ground near the district called "Paradis." The fine elevated block of granite which covers the western end is conspicuously seen from a distance on the side of the high road. The interior in form resembles (although at present it is in a less perfect state) the celebrated cromlech in the isle of Gavr' Innis in the Morbihan. The total length is about 40 feet, but the east end near the road is abruptly stopped by a large stone, which probably once was placed on the adjoining props: if so, some portion of the end was destroyed in making the road. The western chamber of Du Tus, covered by three capstones, is about 16 feet square, or nearly double the size of that at Gavr' Innis; from this space it narrows into another chamber, formed by the lateral props, which is 11 feet in length by 9 feet wide; here several upright stones traverse the end, separating it from another chamber also 11 feet long; adjoining the two last compartments, on the north side, is attached another, 8 feet by 7. The shape of this cromlech corresponds with the one above mentioned, and it is not difficult to perceive the additions which have been made to the first, or western chamber, from the period when it stood in the centre of the surrounding circle, which is nearly 60 feet in diameter. I think it may be fairly conjectured from the examination here made, that the lengthened form of the tumulus which covers that of Gavr' Innis, denotes also additions to the original structure, and the steps lying across the "avenue" shew the divisions of the chambers, as in Guernsey. The western chamber, opened by me in 1837, was found much disturbed, and nothing but stony rubbish was met with.

The elevated and commanding appearance of the large granite capstone, which weighs many tons, and rises conspicuously above the rest, had made it an object of attraction, and doubtless it had been frequently ransacked. The human remains, pottery, and vessels, were discovered in the two long chambers, which form what has been termed the avenue to the main one. (Additional chambers would be more correct.) The third, or northern compartment, contained human remains of men, women, and children, with several vases, bone instruments, and a celt; but some of the pottery belonged to urns, of which portions had been found in other parts of the cromlech.

Great diversity of shape was here observed, as had been remarked at L'ancresse. Two of these urns are here represented—one apparently to hold liquid, the other food.

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The cromlech represented at the head of this article is called "the Trepied," a name sufficiently modern to denote the loss of its original appellation. It is of an oblong figure and was covered by three or four capstones, the principal of which remains in its place, the others have fallen in. Jars, human bones, and flint arrow-heads, were found in the interior. The character of the pottery bore a strong resemblance to that discovered in several places in the island of Herm, the urns usually being tulip-shaped, with a few markings and borders of irregular patterns, evidently done by the hand. In comparing these ornamental designs with those found at Du Tus, Le Creux des Fées, and at Carnac in Brittany, it was interesting to observe the same ideas and the same mode of producing the pattern. The streaks are in these instances made with a similar instrument, and universally an interrupted and indented marking; its frequent occurrence in the pottery of this period, induces the opinion that it was better calculated for the purpose of receiving the encaustum used. The encaustic borders on vases discovered at Carnac are more frequently met with in Brittany than with us, but we perceive the same design on both, although from some accidental cause, the enamelling was not always completed.

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The two vases here shewn are of similar clay, the plain one from the Trepied, that with markings from Du Tus; these will serve as the type for the prevailing shape of the broad mouth urns found at Le Creux des Fées, and in several of the smaller cromlechs in Herm and Guernsey.

It is however proper to remark, that the scored patterns, with what is sometimes called the dotted, were more observed in the principal cromlech at L'ancresse than in any other, the clay being either merely impressed or cleanly cut out; and these marks were found on that sort which bore the appearance of greater antiquity. At Carnac, amidst an abundance of pottery of the former quality, only one fragment of this last was discovered.

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These urns were taken from the principal cromlech at L'ancresse; they are of the finer sort of clay, and appear entirely done by the hand without any mould or lathe.

The round and oval compressed clay-beads discovered at L'ancresse, as well as at Carnac, cannot but excite enquiry as to their use; their size would render them inconvenient to be worn round the neck as ornaments, but if used only at the funeral rites, they would tend to express the feelings of the attendants on those mournful occasions, and, as we observe in the customs of other nations, they would be laid with the remains left in the sepulchre. Stone and bone annulets were also found with them; the former are of serpentine, clay-slate, and lapis ollaris, and are known among the country-people as "Les rouettes des Feêtaux;" these were worn, and perhaps believed to possess some preservative charm, as the amulet of after ages. A few beads of bone were also discovered.

The form and quality of the earthen vessels denote a very early attempt of that art which in other parts of the world had arrived at a high state of perfection. The vases of Greece and Rome possess all the qualifications to distinguish them from those of the Barbarians of the west. The very coarse material used by the latter, and the laboured devices seen on their sides, effected at the expense of much time and rude contrivance, convey to the mind those equally-laboured engravings on the war-clubs of the Indians of the Southern ocean, the similarity of the ornaments also producing the same conviction of the very primitive attempts at ornamental design. There is, however, enough left, amidst the mass of fragments of the pottery of this period, to mark an improvement in the taste of design, as well as in the quality of the clay used. Some of the Celtic pottery in my possession is scarcely inferior to some Roman jars discovered near Etaples in France, which may be dated about the period of the invasion of Britain by Cæsar.

The paucity of models and design may stigmatize the first occupiers of Britain and Gaul, but we must not lose sight of their simple state of life, the absence of luxury and ease, and the infancy of taste and genius; a fair estimate may thus be formed of the primitive race of these countries, and it may be seen that they do not fall below the standard of the early inhabitants of Italy or Greece.

The cromlech situate on the promontory of Le Rée, named Le Creux des Feés, is open at the eastern end, through which you enter into a fine chamber of 7 feet in height, covered by two blocks of granite, each 10 feet wide by 15 in length. At the entrance it is only 2 feet 8 inches wide, but increases to 11 feet within the interior, a row of upright stones on each side forming a passage leading into it; about midway was found a step across the avenue, but whether any separation once existed, so as to form an additional chamber, could not be determined. In exploring this in 1840, numerous jars and urns were discovered, a few bones and ashes were strewed about the floor, fragments of several vessels of good pottery were found, bearing the same designs as those of Carnac and other similar structures in the north part of Guernsey and Herm.

On another hill in the parish of the Vale, may be seen one remaining capstone, 13 feet long, by 6 wide, which, according to tradition, formed part of a celebrated cromlech of nine stones, perhaps the largest in these islands. The name by which it was known to our forefathers is significant of some property inherent or accidently pertaining to some one of the stones composing this Celtic remains: "La roche qui Sonne" was ascribed to it from the sound which issued from the hollow chamber beneath it, when struck on the surface. Urged by the value of the material, the former proprietor of this monument endeavoured to accomplish that which time and the elements had been unable to perform. The same year, however, his dear-bought temerity was arrested by his dwelling-house being destroyed by fire, and some of the inmates falling a prey to the devouring flames! This ill-fated coincidence has left an indelible impression on the minds of the country people, who relate the event, and the antiquary may rest assured that the remaining portion of this once venerated cromlech will be left for many years yet, to point to the spot where stood the mysterious "Roche qui sonne!" Under this capstone several vases were discovered in the lowest part, or primeval deposit, above which, however, a metal bracelet, in the form of a torques, as also one made of jet, were found. In this spot was a small coarse earthen vessel, not unlike a jug with one handle, being the only one of that description met with during our explorings in these islands!

The performance of superstitious rites and acts of devotion in or near Druidical remains may very properly be admitted, but it seems proper to limit these to certain spots and objects, and perhaps the Scriptural account of worshipping "stocks and stones" may be very correctly applied to these nations in this dark era. On the plain of L'ancresse, in sight of three or four cromlechs, is a cairn of granite blocks, now much reduced in height, still called "La Rocque Belen" or Balan; a name too significant, and of too frequent occurrence in Celtic districts, to be overlooked. At a short distance from this spot is another object perhaps of former idolatrous veneration, retaining the title of "La Fountaine des Druides," not far from which, according to the late Mr. Joshua Gosselin, there was a fine rocking-stone, now destroyed. Such a variety of objects and localities, denoting remains associated with paganism, within a short distance from each other, can scarce be the effect of accident. The proximity of Christian chapels, built almost on the very site of these places in the first years of missionary exertions, is a fact which also deserves notice. The large cromlech and circle of Du Tus, or De Hus, is on the same hill as the first Christian chapel, built by St. Maglorius, on the then island of the Vale; and the spot on which the priest's house was situate, is called "Paradis," perhaps in contradistinction to the favourite haunt of the pagan worshipper, who still held some secret veneration for his former associations: nor is this a singular instance in these islands, for it may be seen that nearly all the first Christian establishments are near to those places which still retain Druidical remains.

The great variety of vessels usually discovered within these tombs, were intended to contain food and presents, as offerings to the manes of the dead; the abundant distribution of limpet shells throughout the cromlechs of the Channel islands, would in like manner lead to the same conclusion, this shell fish having been very generally used as food from the earliest period.

r. c. lukis.

  1. Vide No. II. page 142.
  2. Vide p. 146.