A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In a tomb undisturbed for 6,000 years, archaeologists encounter an unexpected world.
Archaeologists have long known of thousands of Neolithic burial mounds and other monumental constructions all over western and northern Europe. Some of the largest are found at Carnac, in northwest France, where stone rows, standing stones, and enormous burial mounds were first constructed around 4500 B.C. But southwest France also has at least two dozen early long mounds. Recently, in one called Prissé-la-Charrière (after the village it is near), archaeologists Roger Joussaume, Luc Laporte, and Chris Scarre found a communal sepulcher that no one had entered for 6,000 years, giving them a view of the burial practices of a people about whom little is known except that they were early farmers.
It was a rare find. The prominence of such mounds on the landscape made them alluring targets for looters and nineteenth-century archaeologists with questionable excavation techniques. And many tombs had simply collapsed over time. Prissé-la-Charrière was on the verge: the limestone walls holding up the grave's four-ton capstone were crumbling, and entering it meant risking being crushed. It was two years before the archaeologists were able to reinforce the capstone and drop down inside.
For Joussaume, entering the tomb was a jarring experience. "It was a dive into the past that gave me a great shock," he says. "It was really an unforgettable moment." Inside were the disarticulated remains of at least seven people, as well as two intact ceramic vessels. It was the third burial chamber they had found in the 300-foot-long mound. The other two held the partial remains of at least 11 more people. The bodies may have been placed in the chamber to decay, and then the majority of the bones moved somewhere else. (Where remains a mystery.) It was a common practice at the time.
For the past 10 field seasons the British-French team has steadily stripped back the turf that covered the mound to reveal the buried structures. "One of the most surprising things is how complex it all is: a honeycomb of walls, cairns, and burial chambers," says Scarre. The mound is also evidence of a new way of thinking about the world. Monumental architecture such as burial mounds, standing stones, and stone rows appear shortly after the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. "When you adopt farming, you divide the landscape into the wild and the domestic. It's only when that distinction gets made that you see people building these long structures," he says.
Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.