Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/November 1905/Some of the Localities in France and England Where Monuments of the Late Stone and Bronze Ages Have Been Found

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Popular Science Monthly Volume 67 November 1905 (1905)
Some of the Localities in France and England Where Monuments of the Late Stone and Bronze Ages Have Been Found by J. Howard Wilson
1426332Popular Science Monthly Volume 67 November 1905 — Some of the Localities in France and England Where Monuments of the Late Stone and Bronze Ages Have Been Found1905J. Howard Wilson




AS we pass from the earlier periods into the neolithic, the culture and modes of life of our ancestors become more varied and complex; the weapons, implements and ornaments are found in greater number and in almost universal geographical distribution and exhibit an ever increasing diversity of form and perfection of workmanship. All these characters are still more pronounced at the beginning of the bronze age, which is comparatively close to the first confines of the historic period. In the later prehistoric times, the developing culture and, in a measure, civilization, made such progress and became so diversified as to require their division and classification into different groups, each of which demands special study.

In the present brief paper, I have confined myself to a short account of the stone monuments of the late stone and bronze ages, which are found in many parts of the world, and furthermore have restricted it to some of the most famous groups in northern France and southern England.

There would seem to be no well-defined law in regard to the general distribution of the prehistoric stone monuments. They are found all over Europe and Asia, as well as in other parts of the world; at high altitudes above the sea in interior mountain districts, as well as in low lying lands so close to the sea as to be drenched with spray in storms. But the greatest known groups are found, curiously enough, within or near the region which has furnished the most numerous evidences of paleolithic man. This fact may be a mere coincidence and not possessed of any especial significance.

At Carnac, in Brittany, and in the neighboring region is the greatest group in the world of these stone monuments. In one field at Carnac, in eight or more parallel rows, are over 1,100 standing stones or menhirs, while two other groups near-by furnish similar numbers, besides a great number of dolmens with stone-circles and tumuli. On Wiltshire Downs there are said to be over 1,000 tumuli, which, although at first sight seem to be mere mounds of earth, are really megalithic monuments in their more complete form. On Salisbury Plain is the perfect and well-known monument of Stonehenge, with over three hundred tumuli within a radius of three miles. A few miles further north is the great temple of Avebury, which Sir John Lubbock calls the greatest of all so-called Druidical monuments, and which he says, quoting from Aubrey, 'did as much exceed Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church.' Here, originally, were 650 great standing stones, although at present not more than 20 have been left in place, while near by, belonging to the great monument of Avebury.

Avebury Circle, Wiltshire.

is Silbury Hill, 130 feet high and covering five and one half acres, the largest artificial mound in Europe.

The monuments of Europe have been divided into nine classes, if we follow the classification given in Brittany.

1. Menhirs, meaning, in Breton, 'long stones,' single untrimmed stones placed upright.

2. Alignments, groups of menhirs placed in one or several lines.

3. Lechs, menhirs which have been trimmed, having generally engraved crosses upon their sides, and which are so comparatively recent as to be hardly worthy of consideration as compared with the other prehistoric monuments.

4. Cromlechs, meaning 'circle places,' groups of menhirs arranged to form circles; although in England this term is erroneously used to denote a dolmen or other stone monument.

Menhirs, near Carnac, Brittany.

Devil's Den, near Avebury, Wiltshire.

5. Dolmens, signifying 'table stones' consisting of a number of menhirs called supports, placed close together to form a rectangle, open at one end and covered by one or more table stones.

6. Covered passages, two lines of parallel menhirs or supports covered by table stones.

7. Stone cists, composed of flat stones forming small closed chambers in the nature of stone coffins.

8. Tumuli, artificial mounds of earth called in England 'barrows' either oblong or round.

9. Galgals, artificial mounds formed of small stones.

The single standing stone or menhir is probably the oldest form

Menhir, Avebury Circle, Wiltshire.

of all these monuments. Very rude peoples would soon naturally employ it for purposes of designation—to mark the grave of a chief or a spot become in some way sacred or important. Then a slab was placed across two or more uprights when an interment took place, and we have the beginning of the dolmen, which later developed into a more or less elaborate chamber, with or without vestibule or covered passage leading to it or auxiliary chambers connected with it; and finally the whole became covered with a mound of earth or small stones, and may have been surmounted by a menhir.

It has been said that the complete megalithic monument consisted of a stone chamber or dolmen covered with a mound, and the whole
The Great Menhir, Lockmariaquer, Brittany.

surmounted by a menhir. In Brittany always, and probably generally, if not always, elsewhere, the dolmen was covered with a mound of earth or small stones. Those dolmens which stand exposed have probably had the earth removed by natural or artificial agencies. In Brittany many of the dolmens show no trace of mounds, standing bare upon the surface of the ground; but it is known that the soil has been removed by the peasants to spread upon their fields, the soil in this part of France being scanty, and the mounds furnishing an available supply. Many of the dolmens and covered passages are still partly underground, the whole of the tumuli not having been removed.

The menhirs vary greatly in size, from a small stone, not over two feet high, to larger ones many times that dimension, and weighing many tons. The greatest of all menhirs is the 'Great Stone' or 'Grand Menhir' at Locmariaquer, in Brittany. It is no longer standing, and is broken into several pieces, but was 70 feet high and weighed 300 tons.

The lechs are considered to be comparatively recent, for all these stone monuments, even in the same region, do not belong to the same period, some dating as far back as the stone age, while others can claim no greater antiquity than the age of bronze or even than a still later time.

The dolmen may be a simple chamber or a number of connecting chambers, and may open directly or may be preceded by a gallery or covered passage of varying length, but it is always open at one end.

The covered passage or allée couverte may terminate in a small chamber, made by partitioning off the end of the passage by means of one or more menhirs or supports, so that there would seem to be no sharp line of distinction between the dolmen and the covered passage, each perhaps at times being a modification of the other.

The dolmen seems to be always sepulchral and, as the final resting place of the earthly remains of a chief or a line of important rulers, it must have been regarded as sacred and an object of veneration. At all events it was covered with an elaborate tumulus.

The stone cist appears to be, as a rule, of later age than the dolmen, but was likewise the receptacle of the remains of the dead and was covered with a tumulus or galgal. The great tumulus of Mont Saint Michel at Carnac, which in its eastern part seems to be composed of small stones and thus to be in the nature of a galgal, contains a number of dolmens and stone cists or cists-veu, as they are called in Brittany. A tunnel which has been driven near the base at the eastern end for the purpose of exploration has brought to view dolmens and stone cists with their contents of human bones, ashes, stone implements and ornaments, including some jadeite axes and a collar of white pearls.

The alignments seem to have more of a religious than a mortuary significance, and are associated with the cromlechs or stone circles. The great circular temple of Avebury in England had originally a double row of menhirs leading away from it on two opposite sides.

Dolmen, at Lockmariaquer, Brittany.

But it is in Brittany, in the region about Carnac, that are found the greatest parallel rows of menhirs with their associated cromlechs. They have here a general east and west alignment. It seems probable that originally the alignments always terminated in a cromlech, or were connected or associated with one in some way, but at present often a trace only remains of the cromlech and even this may be lacking.

The field of Ménec contains 1,100 of these great stones arranged in 11 lines and terminating at their western extremity in a cromlech composed of 70 menhirs. In the field of Kermario are 982 menhirs in ten rows, the largest of the stones being about 20 feet high. The field of Kerlescan contains a rectangular cromlech or quadrilateral of

Alignments near Carnac, Brittany.

39 menhirs, with 579 menhirs in 13 lines. At Erdeven, a few kilometers to the west, are the alignments of Kerzehro, composed of 1,129 menhirs in 10 rows. At right angles to these, and extending in a northerly direction, is a line of 23 menhirs, the largest being 18 feet high, which may possibly be the remnant of a great cromlech. Besides these great groups, near Carnac are numerous others of less importance either connected with these or occupying independent positions, while all about are scattered innumerable menhirs and dolmens, including some magnificent specimens, with occasional tumuli and other monuments.

Excavations and explorations made about the alignments and cromlechs have yielded practically nothing in the way of relics, save a few fragments of stone implements and pottery and some Gallo-Roman objects, all of which have been probably lost or accidentally introduced into the soil near the monuments. These monuments then are apparently not tombs nor in any way sepulchral. There would appear to be little doubt that the alignments and cromlechs are a sort of temple, the alignments with the avenues between being comparable to the columns and the aisles of a cathedral, and the cromlech at the end to the altar or inner sanctuary.

At Avebury and Stonehenge the interments have been made in barrows near the cromlechs; within three miles of Stonehenge, as has been mentioned, are over three hundred of these barrows, which have

Menhirs, Avebury Circle, Wiltshire.
yielded interesting relics to the excavations and efforts of investigators. The cromlechs themselves, here as elsewhere, are evidently temples. There seems to be no trace of any alignments at Stonehenge, but in their place is the double circle, the inner composed of smaller stones being considered the original, and the outer and more striking, much more recent. Avebury had originally two double rows of menhirs leading to it from opposite sides, but few of these stones now remain. Avebury differs from Stonehenge and the cromlechs of Morbihan in several important particulars. It consists mainly of a great circular earthwork within which is a ditch or sort of dry moat, containing twenty-eight and one half acres. Inside the ditch was the principal
Entrance, Table des Marchands, Lockmariaquer, Brittany.

circle of great stones, while within the area enclosed were two small circles formed with a double row of smaller stones.

Occasionally the interior surface of a support in some dolmen or covered passage is found to he engraved with curious figures. Generally, they seem to be circles or some form of curved lines, and at times there is a figure representing the stone celt,[1] which was an object of veneration even after it ceased to be employed as a tool or weapon. Some of the best examples of these are in the famous dolmen on the island of Gavr'inis at Locmariaquer.

The meaning of these curious circles and curves has never been explained. They are probably symbolical or the characters used to denote some definite idea among the people who made them, or may be simply decorative, although this latter interpretation I believe to be far less probable. Certain linguists have at times claimed to see in some of them modifications of hieroglyphics or letters of ancient languages. A controversy has arisen as to the nature of the instrument employed to cut these characters into the faces of the hard rocks. Some archeologists claim that the work could not possibly have been done without the use of metal tools; others assert as positively, and apparently prove their case, that the engraving could have been done by means of stone engravers alone. A determination of this question would shed a certain amount of light upon the age of these monuments, especially as to the age of the particular ones bearing these characters, but this question is unimportant, their antiquity as a whole or as to type being determined in other ways.

Of course, many interesting legends have grown up in regard to these mysterious monuments of the past which are still believed in by

Table des Marchands, Lockmariaquer, Brittany.
the superstitious peasants. In regard to a group of menhirs in the western part of Brittany near the coast, it is claimed that every one hundred years on St. Sylvester's Eve, the great stones rush down to the sea for a drink of the salt water, and while they are gone, one may find untold treasures of gold and precious stones in the hollows over which they stood. But woe to the over-covetous, who in greed for more delays too long, and is crushed by the great stones on their return. There is a legend also in regard to the origin of the marvelous alignments of Carnac. It seems that a saint was being hunted down by the pagans, and reaching the sea, could go no further. He turned and invoking his miraculous powers stretched forth his hand and turned them into stone. Another version makes them Roman soldiers in line
Dolmen, near Carnac, Brittany.

of battle, but why so many were needed to overcome one poor saint is not stated. Old customs and superstitions cling long to a rude uncultured people. They change slowly. While accepting the new ideas or religion, they do not give up the old. Both may flourish side by side.

Some of the stone monuments of Brittany were probably reared or constructed as late as the christian era. As late as the time of Gregory of Tours, the worship of stone monuments was still so prevalent as to call forth an edict of the church putting under a ban all who persisted in still adhering to it, while in some of the remote valleys of the Pyrenees, according to some of the best authorities, the worship of stone exists at the present day.

There seems to be considerable evidence that the people who built Stonehenge and Avebury and erected the menhirs and alignments of Brittany were sun-worshipers, and while a monolith or megalithic monument may have been regarded with veneration and worshipped itself, originally it was simply the symbol and representative of something greater. These customs would not die out easily among a rude clannish people even after the introduction of Christianity, and furthermore, we are all sun-worshipers more or less.

The age of these marvelous and mysterious monuments can not be told in years, but in a more general way. They are not all of the same age; some date as far back as the Neolithic period, many belong to the age of bronze, while others are as recent as the christian era. Since some of these stones in Brittany were put in place, there has been a noticeable subsidence of the coast, so that now some are only revealed at low tide. On the island of Erlanic in the Gulf of Morbihan is half of a cromlech; the other half with the whole of another circle tangent to the first is under water. But this subsidence of the land since these monuments were built would not necessarily indicate any great antiquity, for appreciable movements of the earth's crust, producing changes in level, have taken place in this region in comparatively recent times.

Most of the monuments of Brittany, with the exception of the lechs, which are known to be comparatively recent, seem to be of unhewn stone and many undoubtedly belong to some part of the Neolithic period, while others belong to the bronze. Stonehenge has been satisfactorily determined to belong to the bronze age, from its apparent association with the barrows which surround it. An examination of many of these barrows has revealed many bronze instruments and ornaments and determined them as belonging to that age. Avebury is probably much older, consisting entirely, besides the earthwork, of unhewn menhirs, while almost all the stones of Stonehenge are trimmed and squared, and the great outer circle is furnished with oblong, squared capping stones. And more than this, the capping stones dovetail into each other and are secured on their supports by means of hollows on their under surfaces fitting over bosses on the supports.

Dolman, near Carnac, Brittany.

Before closing this brief paper, it is interesting to note the engineering problem presented by the capping stones, both at Stonehenge and on the dolmens. How were they placed in position? They could hardly have been slid into position without overturning the supports. It would seem as if they must have been lowered from above or else that the supports were buried to their tops until the table stones were placed in position, and then dug out. The erection of the great menhirs presents a similar problem. Those who placed them in position may have resorted to the inclined plane, rolled them up and then tilted them over the vertical edge. The placing in position of these table stones, which often weigh many tons, as well as the erection of the great menhirs, certainly required a considerable amount of engineering skill, and we are here, as well as when confronted by the great feats of other ancient peoples, somewhat surprised at the early date at which it made its appearance. The tourist, scientist or archeologist, in viewing the great monuments in Wiltshire and in Morbihan, can hardly fail to be impressed by the magnitude of the works undertaken and completed in these prehistoric times, nor can the observer overlook their significance in regard to the lives and culture of the builders.

  1. The figure of a celt is engraved on the under surface of the cap stone of the dolmen Table des Marshands.