Vera Collum and the Excavation of a `Roman' Megalithic Tomb

Article excerpt

In 1931 Vera Collum excavated the megalithic tomb at Tresse in Brittany, claiming that it had been built during the Roman period and was associated with the cult of the mother goddess. This article traces the course of her excavation and suggests a context for the reuse of Neolithic monuments in that area.

Key-words: megaliths, Brittany, mother goddess, monument re-use

Devotees of the great goddess have yet to discover Vera Collum and her excavations in megalithic tombs. She is not a well-known figure today. Vera Christina Chute Collum is credited with 11 books, all of them published between 1924 and 1940. They include such titles as The Dance of Civa: life's unity and rhythm (Collum 1927), The music of growth (Collum 1933a) and Manifold unity: the ancient world's conception of the divine pattern of harmony and compassion (Collum 1940). Her most ambitious work, published in German, considers The creative mother: goddess of the Celtic-speaking people, their material culture, the mystical word and their beliefs and symbols (Collum 1939). Amongst her publications there are also two excavation reports (Collum 1933b and 1935). The Tresse Iron Age megalithic monument (Collum 1935) can still be found in antiquarian bookshops, but it is rarely paid much attention. That is surprising, as its full title is extraordinary: The Tresse Iron Age megalithic monument (Sir Robert Mond's excavation), its quadruple sculptured breasts and their relation to the mother-goddess cosmic cult.

The second page provides an even longer sub-title (or perhaps it is an abstract) printed in block capitals. In Collum's words this is the report on `a hitherto unexcavated allee couverte of the Gallo-Roman period with realistic sculptures of two double pairs of human breasts and containing a crouched burial in situ, fragments of a one-edged iron short sword, steatite beads and more than 60 pots of Armorican-"dolmenic" and Armorican-Gaulish styles and ceramic techniques' (1935: v). The monument was near St Malo and the report comes `together with an exhaustive study of the cult responsible for the symbolism of the twin pairs of human breasts' (1935: v). The book is dated 1935 and was published by Oxford University Press. Three years later a shortened version appeared in French (Collum 1938).

We can reconstruct some of the background to this project. Sir Robert Mond was a wealthy chemist and industrialist with antiquarian leanings. He had excavated at Thebes and helped to fund Dorothy Garrod's excavation on Mount Carmel. No doubt he paid for the publication of this report. He was also a Francophile with a special interest in megaliths; his work in Brittany is summarised by Giot (1993: 29-31). Vera Collum, whose career is largely undocumented, lived in Wiltshire but she spent part of her time excavating at Camac with Zacharie Le Rouzic. She conducted three excavations which were financed by Robert Mond. Two of these were at chambered tombs: Le Dehus on Guernsey (Collum 1933b) and Tress on the property of his friend, Baron Robert Surcouf. The excavation of Tresse took place in 1931 but it was only part of a larger undertaking, for at the end of her monograph Collum writes (1935: 115):

I desire to place on record my great indebtedness to Sir Robert Mond for having made it possible for me to devote the last five years to research, both in the archaeological field and in that of comparative religion, without the anxiety of earning a living.

What were the findings of that lavishly endowed project? Her text is often obscure, but at one point Collum summarizes her main conclusions. This is a small sample (Collum 1935: 113-14):

The allee couverte at Tresse had not been previously excavated.... It was erected in the first century AD, probably in the reign of Domitian.... It was a native Gaulish tomb that was at the same time a funeral grotto representing an Entrance to the Underworld which symbolised Return to the Womb of the Creatrix. …