This isn’t, strictly speaking, a book-related post, but a couple of weeks ago I went on a trip to Brittany, in France, as part of my Regional Prehistory class where we studied the different megalithic structures in the area.
Megalithism is the construction of monuments using big rocks. The most famous example of this in Europe is Stonehenge, but the phenomenon isn’t concentrated on the British Isles, it exists on a planetary scale, with some cultures still practicing it today, for example a number of tribes on several Indonesian islands, and it’s generally believed to be a way to honour the dead as many of the monuments are accompanied by tombs.
While personally I’m not particularly passionate about rocks (I prefer working with bones), it’s incredible to be faced with these imposing structures and realise that they were made by people who didn’t have particularly advanced technology and used the most basic of methods to move and place these giant rocks.
Now that the little history lecture is over, on to the trip! So the trip lasted a week (Monday the 4th to sunday the 10th) during which 24 students (Bachelor and Masters students) and three professors went traipsing across Brittany to finally see the giant rocks we’d been working on for a semester. Our original goal was to hit 32 monuments in 6 days (an impressive goal in itself) but we hit a few minor snags (and by that I mean we ran into a tour guide who just Wouldn’t. Stop. Talking. and we were stuck with him all day) and only made it to 28 of them (still quite impressive if you ask me). While you can’t bring together a group of 24 uni students and expect it to be too productive, I like to think we didn’t do too bad.
Luckily the weather was fantastic to the where some of us got sunburnt (personally I got a sunburn on my scalp, because apparently that’s possible, and on my face the next day, because I just didn’t learn my lesson), and we only really got drenched once. From what I’ve been told, it could have been much worse.
In the pictures above you see two of the funerary monuments we saw that were still under their cairn/tumulus, which was the mass of dirt and/or smaller rocks that were added on top of the slabs of stone that made up the tombs themselves. More specifically there’s the Tumulus of Dissignac on the left, and the Cairn of Barnenez on the right. One of the more interesting ones (in the picture below), the Cairn of Petit-Mont, was used as a bunker during the Nazi occupation in France in WWII. Unfortunately, by constructing the bunker, the nazis destroyed one of the funerary chambers located in the monument but I think it’s fascinating to see something entirely modern within a prehistoric structure:
Unfortunately all of these are reconstructions (since we didn’t have time to get to the one monument with its original structure intact. *shakes fists angrily towards the guide because I was presenting that one*) so the shape most probably doesn’t correspond to the original construction, but they’re still impressive to behold nonetheless.
Obviously these don’t look anything like Stonehenge but fear not! While Stonehenge is quite unique because it’s not just a funerary monument (according to the current theories), the ones we saw were presumably built to serve exclusively as tombs (Brittany’s soil is incredibly acid so the skeletons were unfortunately not preserved in the grand majority of cases).
Since there are so many such monuments, a lot of them are lost in the woods (like the one on the right) and quite a number are located on private property (the tomb on the left), so most people aren’t even aware they exist. Luckily we had a very dedicated professor and the occasional guide so we managed to unearth these hidden treasures. I have a very particular relationship with the one on the left, and by that I mean I never want to see it again because we had to hike for an hour to get to it at 8am (I’ve never seriously hiked for a day in my life), then I actually face-planted along the way back (I was told it was an incredibly graceful fall), and finally a dog literally pounced on me and then ran away, which prompted me to scream quite loudly.
That day was really quite eventful as I twisted my ankle with the fall, revisited my childhood by eating a raw crab (to my defense I’d done it before and this guy didn’t believe me so he dared me to eat it. Never take flirting tips from me, kids), got electrocuted trying to pet a gorgeous horse, before the day concluded with one of the profs running a stop sign, getting stopped by the police and then getting fined for it. And all this was only two days into the trip… #TotallyWorthIt
The Roche aux Fées (on the right) is one of the most famous megalithic monuments in Brittany, so I figured it deserved a picture. Another fascinating aspect of having so many monuments just out in the open like that is the legends that surround them, for example the legend for this monument says that if you and your significant other count the same amount of slabs of stone, then you’ll have a long and happy marriage. The picture on the left is me poking my head out of a dolmen (the name given to these kinds of tombs) and being caught on camera.
Back then the level of the sea was about 7-8m lower than it is right now, so a lot of monuments that were built on solid ground (the shore line was 2km away from its current position), are presently either underwater or very close to being. The monument on the right is still somewhat sheltered from the waves, but the monument on the left is half covered by water during high tide.
Megalithic monuments weren’t just used for funerary purposes. While we may never know their true purpose, it’s obvious that single slabs of stones, menhirs, did serve prehistoric communities in some way.
While most have this sort of thin(ish) aspect to them, some menhirs also look like the one on the right (incidentally the man with the camera is the prof who got fined), which only makes the whole endeavour even more mind-blowing. One girl was joking that if the one on the right just fell flat on us and squashed us, archeologists 2000 years in the future would say they’d found a burial site for people belonging to the McDonaldian era, since that’s what it would look like to them.
The problem with being constantly confronted with these is that, after a while they just start becoming more cumbersome than impressive, which is why people sought to alter them sometimes. In the picture on the top left, someone decided to reuse the stone that was pretty much freely available, and make a house out of it. On the one hand, this practice destroys the monument so it is rather appalling, but it’s also very interesting to see how a) the culture grew around to encompass these relics, and b) how the locals react and live with them. The other two pictures show cases of monuments that were christianised in order to ward off evil pagan spirits; on the top right there used to be a cross added on top but it’s been lost now, however on the picture beneath it (where you also have me on the left) you can clearly see the cross and christian symbols carved into the rock.
All this is making the trip seem incredibly productive, which I assure you it was not. While I personally don’t have all the moments of us dicking off, I do have a few choice pictures.
If you looked at the picture on the right and thought ‘hmm, that looks a bit like a human airbag’ you were not far off. The wind was incredibly strong that day and this guy was wearing a poncho instead of an actual raincoat so it sort of blew up in his face. The picture on the left purely exists because of the shape that tree grew into; the guide just whizzed past the tree as if it were the most normal thing in the world while we gathered around it and had a lot of fun taking pictures like these.
A group as ridiculous as ours couldn’t very well do even the most basic tasks normally, which I think these two pictures show off quite well. On the left you have us trying to get a good picture of the entire monument, so the inclination, naturally, was to have someone take it from an elevated perspective. We didn’t even stop to consider another option before going for this one. If you think that was ridiculous, the picture on the right shows Theo trying to get the presenter’s attention to ask a question, because she hadn’t heard him the first five times he asked. Admittedly, he tried raising his hand, and then waving it, and then jumping up and down, before resorting to this, which did end up working.
And no trip would be complete without a bit of pretentious art, so enjoy our attempts at making rock towers:
And finally we come to the last couple of pictures I want to show you guys, mainly because of the story that goes along with it:
Since we were all adults and the profs trusted us well enough, we were pretty much given free rein at night to do as we pleased. Now, being a person who likes getting as much sleep as possible, the first few nights I went to sleep rather early, however on the 4rth night we were about 10 people and then they decided to play a drinking game. For all the copious amount of alcohol I’d consumed up to that point, I’d never played a drinking game in my life so I figured why not? Well this was both a great and terrible decision because, between 10 people, we consumed 8 bottles of cider, 1 bottle of mead, and a bottle of whiskey (we were getting desperate at that point because we’d consumed pretty much all of the alcohol), but we also had so much fun. One of the games we played was Kingscup, and we ended up speaking in english at first (that was my rule because my ability to speak in french is directly related to how much alcohol I’ve consumed), then in french without conjugating verbs for 30m (that is so much harder than it sounds, I made a mistake every time), then we had to be incredibly formal to each other, and then we combined the last two. But the funniest part during that game was when we picked drinking buddies that we ‘married’ (basically we both drank if one had to drink) and I ended up with two husbands, while another guy had 4 wives; one of my husbands was sick and tired of drinking whenever I conjugated a verb so his rule became ‘everyone drinks when I drink’, which pretty much doomed us all after that. That night I consumed more alcohol than I have in the past 2 years, while another thing I learned about myself that week was the fact that I just don’t get hangovers the next day, something which I’m very grateful for.
The trip ended on a very high note as we had a karaoke night on our last night there and I sang Toxic by Britney Spears, which I was decidedly not drunk enough for, but it isn’t a moment I’m likely to forget any time soon since it’s been immortalised thanks to the beauty of smart phones.
It’s been about a week since I’ve been back and I am still recuperating from the entire ordeal, but I would definitely do it again without hesitation, it’s one of the best trips I’ve ever done!
I know about half of this post is heavy on the history, but if you liked learning about it, I can expand on this topic and prehistory in general so leave a comment if you want to hear more about this sort of thing!