A row of stones   Leave a comment

Before Quid.fr suddenly went offline at the end of March this year, I had, fortunately, saved exactly what this ‘Encyclopedia Gallica’  had reported on the prehistory of the commune of La Livinière :

# Dolmens de Combe-Marie, Calamiac, Combe-Violon, Combegrosse, Les Meulières, Fonsorgues, Pierre Rousse, Caussérel, Saussenac, Castel Bouqui.
# Alignement mégalithique à Saussenac.
# Habitat chalcolithique au nord-est de La Livinière.
# Traces de village néolithique à Parignoles.

Unfortunately there was no means of quizzing Quid about its sources – and now it is too late. Take that first entry : of the 10 dolmens cited, I have found only 3. The rest seem to have no parentage, and no further references. But they will haunt me for a good while yet – until I either track them down, or eliminate them as duplicates or confusions.

However – I may have found what is referred to in the second entry. Given the modest dimensions of our little neolithic sepulchres, this ‘Alignement mégalithique’ was never likely to win a prize in the All-France Henge Competition.

But it was intriguing and (increasingly) impressive, when I stumbled across it earlier this year while looking for the Combe Lignières dolmen :

It is an utterly enigmatic construction, 12 metres long and about 1 metre wide.

I would hazard a quess that it was first noted by Jean Miquel de Barroubio in the 1890’s. Erik Trinkhaus & Pat Shipman’s ‘The Neandertals’ (Pimlico 1993) sheds some light on these early days of archaeology and anthropology. Their chapter on ‘L’Affaire Moulin Quignon‘  illustrates the rush to satisfy this era’s (mid 19th. c.) appetite for prehistoric artifacts and bones.

The early amateur-prehistorian, Boucher de Perthes, claimed to have located a hominid jawbone in a quarry near Abbeville in Picardy. He had been finding ‘bi-face‘ flint tools in the area for 30 years –  and desperately needed fossilized bones to go with this early human industry. Local workmen duly presented him with this example, supposedly accompanied by a flint axe, both from a layer dated to 300,000 BCE. Other French experts backed him, while German and English experts were skeptical. An international commission was called in 1863, and it became a ’cause célèbre’. The English were permitted to study a tooth from the jawbone – and found it to be not fossilized at all, and probably neolithic. The French refused to countenence these findings, and pronounced in favour of Boucher. Jacques Boucher died in 1868, still proclaiming it to be authentic. Within 30 years the French had quietly dropped their support, without ever formally declaring it to have been a fake.

Trinkhaus & Shipman stress the following point: ‘ At Moulin Quignon, there was probably little intention to foil the progress of science. Almost certainly, the motivation was a transparently simple one: if Boucher de Perthes would pay good money for hand-axes, and promised even better bonuses for bones, why shouldn’t the workmen indulge him, and enrich themselves? What could be the harm?’

Well, the harm could be considerable. To the reputation of this early scientist in particular, to the reputations of subsequent amateur archaeologists in general, and to the methods employed by other ‘gentlemen-scientists’.

Trinkhaus & Shipman stress that this ‘find’ of Boucher’s was not an isolated incident: ‘As early as 1859, rumours and scurrilous stories were circulating that Boucher was being fooled by modern, counterfeited stone tools. Because of the near-universal practice of paying workmen to excavate and rewarding them for good finds, the door was wide open to fakery. Indeed, the Abbeville area was notorious for it, perhaps because of Boucher’s unbridled enthusiasm.’

One of the probably apocryphal stories is as follows: ‘While walking through the streets of Abbeville, a gentleman passed a peasant sitting on his doorstep, diligently chipping stone. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I am making Celtic axes for Monsieur Boucher.”

I have cited this at length because it goes some way to explaining how our own local ‘gentlemen-prehistorians’ managed to amass such an extensive catalogue of sites – in Jean Miquel de Barroubio’s case, the entire length of the Minervois Hills from Carcassonne to St. Pons. As I have discovered, it takes many weeks of visits to cover just a few sections of  ‘causses’. His list of prehistoric sites was almost certainly compiled with the help of scores of ‘informants’ : shepherds and herdsmen, farmers and forestrymen, hunters and poachers . . . Word had undoubtedly gone out, that a wealthy landowner and collector was seeking suitable sites and artifacts. This, I am fairly sure, was how the original lists were made, with all their confusions and duplications and variations, over names and locations. And, possibly, how and why so many dolmens were pulled apart to get at the grave-goods within.

Capstones weighing many tonnes are not lifted clear by a pair of grave-robbers. A beam of sufficient length and strength would need a small band of men to carry it the many kilometres on site. Larger capstones would require a strong draught-horse, or a couple of oxen, complete with harness and thick rope or chains. This amount of equipment and manpower must have been paid for somehow.

Why prehistory had suddenly, in the mid-19th century, become worth spending time and money on – had in fact become a Europe-wide fascination during this epoch – involves Darwin and the rise of Prussia. But all that must wait for another post.

For more photos & information about the Saussenac Stone Alignment – see under Pages >Menhirs.



Posted October 8, 2010 by Richard Williams in Uncategorized

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