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22 October 2001
Megaliths as social change indicators

In Saint-Just, a village in central Brittany, is one of the largest collections of neolithic monuments in northern France. Giant quartz blocks straggle across the hillside, some weighing up to 30 tons, many brought from the surrounding region. Archaeologist Dr Chris Scarre believes the monuments were built when people changed from being hunter-gatherers to farmers and that such buildings were indicative that people's world views changed as they began to farm.
      Scarre has been studying settlements in northern France for 20 years. Genetic studies have tried to decipher whether Europe's population descends from the first wave of colonists that arrived as the ice age receded, or whether later settlers are the ancestors of modern Europeans. His studies indicate that small-scale farming took place here, but it was another two to three hundred years before farming became widespread. Ultimately these settlers inspired a radical new way to view the landscape. "Hunters and gatherers in Europe don't build much in the way of physical structures," says Scarre, "yet from the beginning of farming in Western Europe you get these massive monuments."
      Neither was it a case of having sufficient numbers of people or resources, argues Scarre. "It's a question of wanting to. Suddenly they look at the world in a different way and they start to build these monuments. They pick up all sorts of resonances between monuments and landscapes." Scarre argues that people began relating to the landscape in a particular way, almost copying it. He gives the example of an alignment on Gree de Cojoux, a hill in Saint-Just where there are three rows of stones. Two run east-west, the third is at a right angle and consists of five massive quartz blocks in a line 25 metres long along a naturally rocky outcrop.
      "The row of standing stones appears to be aligned on a natural rock formation, blending the cultural and natural," says Scarre. Burial tombs at Saint Just were made from the local schist, but the stone alignments were solid quartz, the same kind that runs in thin veins through the rocky outcrops. Scarre believes the people, by carrying chunks of quartz from the surrounding valley, were "trying to unlock something they thought was in the land already."
      Quartz is used in many neolithic monuments, including Newgrange, in Ireland. Grae de Cojoux also has several burial mounds. For the past seven years Scarre has been excavating a similar one off the coast of Brittany on a tiny island called Molene. It is a huge construction - a trapezoidal shape, 100 metres long, 20m wide and four metres high. "Within it we found two enclosed burial spaces, one with the incomplete remains of three people, and the other with incomplete remains of five people. Did they really build such an enormous monument to bury bits of eight people? It's obviously not the right interpretation."
      He prefers to view such structures as monuments in their own right. "Because this mound is built of limestone and it erodes so quickly that it could never have been very stable, perhaps they weren't built to last. They were built to be visible in a particular form for a short period." Like a cairn, he thinks people came and added stones to them from time to time. But why should this change have come about at the same time as farming? Scarre thinks it relates to the new understanding that one can control animals and plants by domesticating them.

Source: Guardian Unlimited (18 October 2001)

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