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Before the Pyramids... April 28, 1999
by Frédéric Lontcho

Neolithic peoples in France constructed huge tombs that are today only visible from the air.

[image]This enigmatic object, dubbed "the point," has been found in several French Neolithic necropolises. They are possibly objects of power or symbols of prestige. (F. Lontcho) [LARGER IMAGE]

The funerary monuments of Egypt are perhaps the best known examples of early colossal architecture. Few realize, however, that millennia before the first pyramids Neolithic peoples in France were constructing huge structures to house their dead and mark territorial boundaries. If this phenomenon is not well known, it is only because these buildings no longer exist. Only aerial photographs have detected their remains. Perhaps because of this, study of the Cerny people, the monument-builders of Neolithic France, is fairly recent. Until 35 years ago, no one had even imagined such a culture existed.

The Cerny people were the brilliant intuition of Gerard Bailloud, a director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research, who in 1964 first hypothesized their existence in the book The Neolithic in the Parisian Basin. Four years earlier, he had been brought a handful of ceramic sherds collected in a field in Cerny, a village 25 miles south of Paris, and he saw them as evidence of a heretofore unknown civilization. While the Cerny group fit into his explanatory scheme for the Neolithic in the Parisian basin, he added a caveat: "No tomb can be assigned to the Cerny type with certainty."

Several years later, a book synthesizing French prehistory included an aerial photograph of an area known as Passy, about 70 miles southeast of Paris, showing circular enclosures surrounding tombs probably dating to the Bronze Age. Some long lines crossed the negative, possibly natural phenomena. These lines crossed a gravel pit, dug by quarrymen between 1978 and 1990. A salvage excavation determined that these lines were in fact man-made ditches dating to the Neolithic, some more than 600 feet long and terminating in circular areas. We had just discovered what archaeologists now call Passy-type structures, tombs belonging to the Cerny people which, though poor in grave goods, have yielded human remains. Archaeologists conducting aerial reconnaissance began to watch for these lines, and it wasn't long before a score of new sites was discovered; a half-dozen have been excavated in the past decade. The Cerny culture was no longer hypothesis, but historical fact.

Around 5500 B.C., a people known as the Danubians migrated from central Europe into the Parisian basin, their westernmost settlement. They brought with them agriculture and animal husbandry and met the indigenous Mesolithic people who lived by hunting and gathering. The mixing of these two peoples gave birth to the Cerny culture.

Map of France's Parisian basin (Lynda D'Amico) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

The Cerny culture occupies mostly the Yonne and Seine river basins and developed between 4500 and 4000 B.C. European regionalization began at Cerny, with groups settling in small areas and beginning to develop unique life-styles. While we are very familiar with Cerny ceramics (exemplified by the sherds Bailloud examined), their economy (a mixture of farming and hunting), and some of their necropolises. Their settlements pose a problem for archaeologists. While the houses of their predecessors are easy to find, those belonging to Cerny are still difficult to discern.

The Cerny people represent a great stride in European history. In the sixth millennium B.C., the first Danubians had introduced agriculture, but they settled only on light soils in valley bottoms, their tools and agricultural technique not permitting them to cultivate heavier soils at higher elevations. In the next millennium the Cerny people began the conquest of the plateaus. It is hypothesized that they used plows drawn by oxen and perhaps horses, which had served until then only for food, vastly increasing the cultivable surface of the land to feed a rising population. The Cerny people were the first in Europe to grow wheat as their principal cereal. Raw materials such as flint were systematically exploited, and mining started to appear. Perhaps most impressive was their construction of the monumental necropolises represented by the trenches we see today, the first of their kind in the world.

Of earth and wood

[image] Watercolor reconstruction of the monuments at Passy. (J.-C. Golvin) [LARGER IMAGE]

Since very little remains of these monuments, we must try to imagine them at the time of their splendor. One of the most spectacular is located at the Passy site and has been carbon-dated to between 4463 and 4279 B.C. One of the longest of the necropolises is monument 5, which consists of two parallel ditches 21 feet apart, increasing to 48 feet in the east, each more than 850 feet long. At one end the ditches terminate in a circular area some 150 feet in diameter. These ditches contained palisades, wooden fences marking the necropolises. We think they were constructed in one of three ways: The ditches' earth was heaped between them to form a long barrow, higher at the eastern end; the ditches served as the foundation of a palisade, or wooden fence surrounding the barrow, or some mixture of these two techniques, with palisades sustaining the earth to create a terraced architecture. That they were built in wood and earth implies considerable effort. Numerous large trees had to be cut down with burnished adzes, then stripped of their branches and transported. The volume of moved earth was tremendous considering that the Cerny people had no knowledge of metals and had to use the backs of animals or wooden buckets.

[image] Excavation of Passy-style monuments at Escolives-Sainte-Camille [LARGER IMAGE (left)] [LARGER IMAGE (right)] (F. Lontcho) [image]

Monument 5 lies within a necropolis complex of tombs and other structures of different shapes: short trapezoidal or keyhole-shaped structures between 60 and 120 feet long, very long monuments like number 5, and the remains of circular structures. Different periods seem to account for the different shapes. Long lines were characteristic of the elongated houses of the Danubians, predecessors of the Cerny inhabitants, who settled the region in the second half of the sixth millennium. Were these monuments recollections of their ancestors' homes? At Balloy, the plan of certain Cerny necropolises perfectly copies the foundations of houses abandoned for ages that belonged to the Danubians. These houses, made of wood and straw, are well known and easily spotted by their deep postholes.

Excavation of a pit that once belonged to a long structure at Pont-sur-Seine. The ditch was possibly used as a tomb, though no skeletons were recovered. (F. Lontcho) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Several structures contain one or more tombs, while others have none. Six buildings at Nogent-sur-Seine, about 65 miles southeast of Paris, certainly included ditches (generally inside the monuments, though some are adjacent) which could have been used as graves, though no bones have been found in them. While the structures' sepulchral function is undeniable (human remains have been recovered at Passy and other sites), it is likely that their architecture had other functions: a sanctuary, a temple, or a place for cult practice. Tombs didn't seem to be reserved for a particular sex or age. Men, women, and children are found in equal proportion in necropolises where there are sufficient skeletal remains for statistical analysis.

Why monumentalism?

The construction of a monument of colossal size requires the assembly of a large work force. The Cerny necropolises are too gigantic to have been executed just within a family group, no matter how extended. It is impossible in the Neolithic to imagine a centralized power able to direct hordes of slaves; more likely, trade and alliances compelled participation, and the building became a communal project where groups labored as a sign of good will. But having gathered so many helping hands, it would have been necessary to feed and lodge them. I imagine this happening within the scope of a festival, which participants would have attended while working on the project. Those organizing the project would have had to estimate the quantity of grain and the number of animals necessary to nourish the assembled men, women, and children.

Territorial marking

The Cerny structures, which varied considerably in size, changed the landscape of the countryside. Monumentalism typically appears after a period of societal change, when settled lands have been exploited, there is food in excess, and activities not tied to subsistence are feasible. Constructing a colossal monument demonstrates proof of ownership, delineating territory and property. A huge tomb was a reminder for the Cerny people that their ancestors colonized this land and that they had a right to possess it. These grandiose buildings told group members, "This is our land," but it also told foreigners, "You are only visitors here."

Monumental enclosures also existed in the same period and in the same territory. There are, for example, circular spaces surrounded by impressive ditches. But these enclosures were probably not built as fortifications since they would have been difficult to defend, and no house was found in them. Were these meeting places, fair sites, or refuges in case of crisis?

A more general phenomenon

[image] Elongated tumulus at Bougon dated to 4500 B.C. The monument bears a strong resemblence to those at Passy and seems to correspond to the same socio-cultural phenomenon. (F. Lontcho) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the same period, in different places, a desire for monumentalism seems to emerge. In western Europe, it takes various forms. In the area of the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany there are huge earthen mounds. The most famous is the Saint-Michel tumulus, 375 feet long, 150 feet wide, and 30 feet high. Further to the south are large, elongated stone mounds. One, in the community of Tuson, measures 450 feet long, 60 feet wide, and almost 12 feet high. Dates from Bougon and Barnenez place cairns bearing megalithic monuments in the same epoch. Although carbon-dating in this era still has a margin of error of at least a century, making it difficult to indicate precisely which monuments came first, it is clear that the invention of monumentalism in France dates to the second half of the fifth millennium B.C.

In north-central Europe, especially Poland, Denmark, and Bohemia, there are similar long tumuli, perhaps a little more recent but historically and culturally similar. All these monuments were more or less oriented toward the east. They all seem to shelter individual burials or those with only a few tombs. In eastern Europe there was also an explosion of funerary ritual, but it takes another form. At Varna in Bulgaria, conspicuous display of wealth begins to reveal itself in the funerary objects accompanying the dead. Burial of precious gold objects, necklaces, bracelets, clothing, pottery, and flint may be markers of social status. In Brittany, monumental burials contain large axes imported from the Alps. The tombs at Passy, on the other hand, are extremely poor in offerings--a few ceramics, a few arrowheads, but nothing we would consider prestigious.

All societies do not respond in the same way to social change, and monumentalism is but one reaction. In the Near East, monumentalism was not introduced until much later. Egypt's first pyramid dates to the third millennium B.C., although precursors include the funerary palaces of Abydos at the end of the fourth millennium. In Mesopotamia one can't speak of monumentalism until the end of the third millennium, with the royal tombs of Ur. In Western Europe, wood (or stone) and earth monuments gave way to a preference among Neolithic builders for stone. These first monuments advanced an architectural idea that would be enormously popular in all Western Europe over the next 2,000 years: the huge stone blocks sheltering grave sites known as dolmen.

Frédéric Lontcho is editor-in-chief of L'Archéologue in Paris.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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