A Pattern of Evolution for the Neolithic Funerary Structures of the West of France

Article excerpt

The astonishing architectural density and diversity of megalithic monuments along the coastline of the bay of Quiberon and in the gulf of Morbihan have permitted French and foreign archaeologists to establish continually improved classifications. The paper, based on the Morbihan Neolithic data, presents a coherent and dynamic evolutionary sequence of funerary structures from between 5000 and 3000 BC.

For over half a century the 'invention' of the large megalithic structures of western France has regularly stimulated the minds and imaginations of French and foreign archeologists. This has recently been demonstrated by the reactions of some archaeologists to the current debates on the purpose and age of the passage graves of Western Europe (Giot 1991).

In the course of seminars given in 1988-89 at the University of Paris I, we presented a study on the modes of transition, in metropolitan France, from the individual to the collective tomb through their architecture and corresponding funerary practices during the 5th and 4th millennia BC. In particular, the assumption that passage graves derived from earlier funerary structures, by means of a coherent dynamic, led us to reassess archaeological associations (some of them unrecognized) and to reconsider some of the methods of construction. These lines of research appeared to supply evidence of a relative logic within the theoretical evolutionary process.

Typological classification and its foundation

The southern coast of Brittany is known to be particularly rich in megaliths, and one of the highest concentrations lies around the Gulf of Morbihan. As it has become one of the basic centres for research on 'Megalithism', it seemed logical to draw upon the documentary sources available (bibliographies as well as fieldwork) for this region to demonstrate the development of this architecture.

The history of Armorican archaeology was marked at first by Celtomania and the activity of antiquarians. Then, with the first plans drawn by Lukis and the first inventories compiled by Miln, Gaillard and Le Rouzic, it turned to more systematic forms of investigation. The density of megalithic remains and their astonishing diversity inevitably led to the formulation of increasingly sophisticated typological classifications, proposed successively by archaeologists such as Lukis, Montelius, Gaillard, du Chatellier, Le rouzic, Ford, Daniel and, latterly, L'Helgouac'h.

Because of the ruinous state of many of these structures, most of which, stripped of their mounds, are now reduced to the remnants of their internal constructions, these first classifications were naturally restricted to the morphological features so revealed. It was not until some 30 years ago, thanks to excavation campaigns such as that in Barnenez, that French research on megalithism turned its attention to the tumuli (external structures) and thus made a major advance towards a fuller understanding of the monuments. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that L'Helgouac'h takes account, wherever possible, of any data concerning the form and/or technology of construction, typological classification of megalithic architecture still concentrates on the plan of the internal structures.

The evolutionary principle, which is acknowledged by several researchers and is considered to be dependent on changes in funerary rites during the late Neolithic period with more collective tombs, was translated into an extension of the chamber to the detriment of the passage (L'Helgouac'h 1973; Bailloud 1985). Thus the essential differentiation between these two characteristic parts of the internal space of the earlier passage graves disappeared with the gallery graves; in the latter, indeed, the walls of the chamber continue those of the passage which is sometimes compared in the case of Armorican monuments with some form of 'couloir residuel evase' (L'Helgouac'h 1986: 191). The different stages of this transformation can be made out from the various architectural forms through a distinct regression of the access structure, which was gradually incorporated into the new space of the chamber. …