Wednesday, 6 May 2015

"The Land of the Marsh-Lords" - the rich prehistory of the Golfe du Morbihan

There is a place which features in both my archaeological writing and in my novels, but which, so far, has always remained "over the horizon" in my fiction. In my first novel, Undreamed Shores, set in 2400 BC, my protagonist, Amzai, sets out to reach it, but his companions continue without him when he is taken ill. In "The Song of Strangers," the final story in my third novel, Omphalos, set almost 2000 years earlier, Amzai's ancestor, Txeru, does travel to the "Land of the Marsh-Lords," but the story is narrated from the point of view of his future wife, Egraste, who does not accompany him on that part of his voyage. That place is the Golfe du Morbihan, in the south of Brittany.

The Golfe du Morbihan (top right) and Quiberon Peninsula (left) from space. Photo: NASA (image is in the Public Domain).

Why, you may ask, given the fascination this place clearly holds for me, have I been so reluctant to take my readers there? The answer is simple: it deserves a novel of its own, and I hope, some day, to write that novel.

I first travelled there myself at the age of seventeen, hitch-hiking from Saint-Malo with a friend. I was drawn to this archaeological paradise by Glyn Daniel's The Hungry Archaeologist in France, a guide both to the archaeology and the gastronomy of the region (not that I could afford much of the latter on this first visit - I made up for that subsequently).

The Golfe today is a shallow inlet of the sea, with more than 40 islands of varying sizes, but the sea-level in the epoch of my characters was significantly lower, and the islands would have risen not from the sea, but from a marsh, the salinity of which probably varied with the tide, a landscape more like that of today's Briere National Park, which lies a short distance to the south.

The Briere National Park. Photo: Fanny Schertzer (licensed under GNU).

Between 4500 BC and 2000 BC, the people who lived around the Golfe, and on its islands, built an extraordinary range of stone monuments. Some of these, "passage graves" including the elaborately decorated Gavrinis, were clearly used for funerary rituals over a period of centuries, although we can only speculate as to the precise nature of these rituals and the meaning of the carvings.

The cairn of Gavrinis, on an island in the Golfe. Photo: Myrabella (licensed under CCA).

Carved stones in the passage grave of Gavrinis. Photo: Joachim Jahnke (licensed under GNU).

Others, such as the enormous Tumulus Saint Michel, appear to have been individual burials, and are marked by rich grave-goods, including elaborate ceremonial axes of jadeite, imported from the Italian Alps.

Le Tumulus Saint-Michel, Carnac. Photo: Haubi (licensed under GNU).

Jadeite axes from burial mounds around the Golfe. Musee Nationale des Antiqites, Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Photo: Calaume (licensed under CCA).

To the west of the Golfe lie the megalithic alignments of Carnac, rows of standing stones extending over several kilometres. On my first visit, we camped among these stones, but they are now sealed off to prevent erosion. We have virtually no idea what these alignments meant to the people who built them, but they represent at least as large an undertaking as Stonehenge, and cover a far greater area.

The Alignement de Menec at Carnac. Photo: Steffen Heilfort (licensed under GNU).

I have returned to the Golfe many times over the years, as a PhD student, as the leader of both student field-trips and commercial tours. I have visited all the known monuments, seen all the artefacts in museum collections, and spoken to virtually all the archaeologists who have excavated in the region during my life-time.

My book, Statements in Stone, was my attempt, as an archaeologist, to make sense of these monuments, but I realised, even as it went to print, that archaeology could do little more than scrape the surface when it came to understanding the lives and beliefs of the people who built and used them. It was this realisation that first motivated me to write fiction set in the prehistoric past.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. One of my favourite places. Hopefully your books will reach there one day!

  2. Always dreamed of visiting Carnac and the surrounding area. Don't think I ever will now - except through your words. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for these! It's a long time since I was there (a University of Wales field-trip in 1994 or 1995, I think), so I wonder how it's changed. I know it well enough to write from memory, though, so long as I am writing historically.