Monday, 8 June 2015

Land for the Living, Tombs for the Dead - The Gallery Graves of Northern France

A visitor to Brittany, Normandy or the Channel Islands encounters several types of megalithic monument. All were built during the Neolithic period, more than four and a half thousand years ago, and long before any written records were produced. In an earlier blog-post, I discussed the passage graves of Europe's Atlantic fa├žade, talking of their womb-like form, their alignment towards sunrises and sunsets at equinoxes and solstices, and the existence within them of a space that might be shared by the living and the dead.

Passage graves were built between 4750 and 3250 BC. Gallery graves, built between 3250 and 2850 BC, are profoundly different, and seem to represent a changing concept of mortality. Passage graves have spacious chambers in which people could stand up and do things. They often contain only fragmentary human remains, like the relics in a Medieval Catholic church. Gallery graves, on the other hand, are rarely high enough to stand up in, and seem, in many cases, to have been packed with corpses. They were, it seems, truly the domain of the dead.

The gallery grave of Mogau-Bihan, Brittany. Photo: Lamiot (licensed under CCA).

When I was studying archaeology at Cambridge, and our professor, Colin Renfrew (subsequently Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn), was developing a theory of megalithic monuments as "territorial markers," it seemed to me that this model explained gallery graves far more successfully than it explained passage graves. They have a more inland distribution, and are rarely found in close proximity to one another. "This land is ours," the builders seem to have been saying, "because it was cleared and cultivated by our ancestors, and here are their bones to prove it."

In my first novel, Undreamed Shores, my protagonist, Amzai, who comes from a culture of passage graves on Jersey, returns to his island from a long journey, and is shocked to see the gallery grave built by invaders, who have arrived in his absence:

"He looked again at the ground, and saw that the tracks led along the path to the right. He followed them to a clearing. In the clearing was a stone construction, a shrine of some sort, but not like the shrines he was used to. Clearly they expected to stay!"

The gallery grave of Ville-es-Nouaux, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

After Amzai and his companions have defeated the invaders, the sorceress, Meruskine, undertakes to exorcise the foreign monument:

"Today you must attend to the burial of the dead. Please don't touch this accursed shrine. I will purify it with charms and potions the like of which I hoped I would never have to use."

The monument in question, Ville-es-Nouaux, seems to have been deliberately sealed and abandoned in c 2400 BC, with a series of elaborately decorated pottery vessels placed within it.

Another Jersey gallery grave, that of Le Couperon, features in my third novel, Omphalos, whose Medieval characters, Sir Raoul de Paisnel and his steward, Guillaume Bisson, believe it to be the haunted grave of "a Danish pirate."

The gallery grave of Le Couperon, Jersey. Photo: Pawel Szubert (licensed under GNU).

The walls of gallery graves, like those of passage graves, are sometimes decorated with carved motifs, but they are very different from the art of the passage graves. The most common motif is a pair of breasts and a necklace, sometimes thought of as representing a "mother goddess," also depicted on a small number of free-standing menhirs.

The "statue-menhir" of Le Castel, Guernsey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Objects buried with the dead include stone axes, pottery vessels, and elaborate knives made from flint quarried at Grand Pressigny, in central France. It is one of these knives (found at Le Pinacle, Jersey, and now in the Archaeological Museum at Hougue Bie) that Amzai wields in his dream:

"He took a flint knife, a long, honey-coloured knife from Aramaio, with a polished handle and a serrated blade, and he sliced through the anchor-rope, allowing the boat to drift off on the ebbing tide. He heard a screech from the cliff above him. A young male peregrine took flight for the first time ... From the other side of the bay, a second bird appeared, a young female. The two birds found one another and gambolled together like airborne lambs, rising high in the air and swooping downwards, spiralling around one another, their wingtips almost touching."

Knives of flint from Le Grand Pressigny. Photo: Latenium (licensed under GNU).

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

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