A New Decorated Menhir

Article excerpt

Well-known monuments continue to yield surprises. The bold zig-zag carving on the menhir of La Bretelliere, in the departement of Maine-et-Loire some 55 km southwest of Angers and 40 km east of Nantes, is the latest in a series of unexpected discoveries of megalithic art which includes, for example, the designs carved on the upper face of the Gavrinis capstone (Le Roux 1985) and the grid-lines and animals on the Saint-Samson menhir (Giot 1990). Furthermore, the Bretelliere menhir has the added distinction of its geographical location, in an area not hitherto noted for its megalithic art. It forms part of a cluster of some 20 menhirs (extant or destroyed) on the northern side of the River Moine, an affluent of the Sevre-Nantaise, around the modern town of Cholet (Gruet 1967).

The menhir of La Bretelliere measures some 6.2 m tall, and is of local granite. It has long been known to have a series of crosses carved round its base, associated with the process of Christianization. The vertical zig-zag motif is entirely different in scale and execution and begins around one-third of the way above ground level, continuing towards the summit of the menhir where it ends in a possible head. The total length of the line is 5.50 m, compressed within a vertical height of 3.65 m. It may originally have begun at ground level, the lower part erased perhaps in the same process of Christianization that resulted in the carving of crosses round the base. The survival of the upper part of the carving may be explained by the fact that it lay beyond the reach of those seeking to remove the pagan symbol.

The carving is on the north face of the stone, and is normally only visible in oblique light around sunrise from April to October and sunset from the end of February to the beginning of November. Although the other carvings on the stone had been known since at least 1807 (Gruet 1967), the zig-zag lay unrecorded until January 2000 when it was discovered and photographed by Paul Raux. The indication of a head at the top of the carving, if correctly interpreted, suggests that this is indeed a representation of a serpent.

The serpent is relatively rare in the corpus of engraved motifs on menhirs and passage-graves of northwest France. The 4-m high menhir of Le Manio in the southern Morbihan was found on excavation to be carved with five parallel serpent motifs, each measuring some 90 cm long and with clearly discernible heads (Bailloud et al. 1995: 73, pace Shee Twohig 1981: 92, who finds them `not at all convincing'). Vertical serpentiform motifs are also found on orthostats 4, 6 and 8 at Gavrinis; on orthostat 8, three serpentiforms (two of them carved in raised relief) rise from the base of the stone (Shee Twohig 1981: figures 115-118; Le Roux 1985: plate XXI; 1992). Here again, the snake heads are visible. Alternatively, a more angular Breton parallel for the Bretelliere motif can be found on one of the carved blocks (stone 21) re-used in the kerb of the Tossen-Keler mound (Briard & Giot 1968).

The strongest parallels for the Bretelliere menhir are to be found not in France but in northern Iberia. …