Aveyron and the Statues Menhir
Scholars, archaeologists, and now the general public have been fascinated for almost 150 years by these standing stones also known as statues-menhir. The word menhir comes from the Middle Breton, a (now French) Celtic language as of men for stone and hir for long.
Today, these Rouergue sculptures form one of the largest groups in Europe but mostly are the first monumental statues known in these south west regions.
A few fondamental questions remain unanswered though.
What are they representing?
What do these enigmatic sculptures tell us about these communities?
These questions have been haunting experts since the original research made at the turn of the 19th century by Abbot Hermet, the so-called "inventor" of standing stones.
What's a Statue-Menhir?
A statue-menhir is a scuplture stuck in the ground whose overall shape is reminiscent of a menhir.
True Pieces of Art
At first, the 19th century's archaeologists were puzzled as they were so used to realism as these sculptures were so often described as coarse, rudimentary or even schematic in some ways. Nowadays no one can stay insensitive to these representations, moreover to their singularity. Highly evocative, representing a character in broad strokes, giving it sometimes some expression, one can say they immediately retain attention as their simple but rhythmic shapes, jerky too, do play around with light. The geometry of their straight lines and harmonious curves are so impressive.
The depicted characters are shown in full with straight legs, a belt to mark around the waists. Arms are folded on the chest extending in the back, with shoulder blades shaped butt. Facial features are simplified to the eyes and nose, as well as tattoos — parallel lines on the cheeks — rarely the mouth is drawn. Sometimes bodies wear a large heavy coat with parallel folds. Statues-menhirs bear different attributes according to their depicted sex. Women have breasts in the form of buttons, neck collars with several rows and hair pulled back. Men carry weapons — bow, arrow, ax — and a belt across the chest kept back by a strap joined to the belt. A triangular artefact with a ring is suspended. This hard to identify utensil is commonly called 'object'or 'dagger-object' by archaeologists.
From Stone to Man
The main issue when it comes to interpret the meaning of these statues-menhirs is that these monuments are —so far— discovered out of context. As a matter of fact they are not discovered in close relationship to an archaeological site.
Nonetheless there are proving arguments all pointing to a pivotal period between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age —also known as Chalcolithic. Indeed this period is defined as the early stage of the copper metallurgy — precisely between 3,500 and 2,300 BC, where daggers, axes, bows, arrows and other ornamental artefacts where produced similar to the ones present on statues-menhirs and found on archaeological sites dating from the same period. Flint and/or copper daggers were produced in large numbers at these times. Standing stones like the statues-menhirs are part of the same trend; the erection of stone monuments, megaliths of large sizes. Among these are the dolmens — spectacular tombs whose remains can still be seen along the Aveyron countryside.
The Middle Neolithic megaliths appeared on the Atlantic coast, essentially expanding during the new and the end of the Neolithic (Chalcolithic).
Excavations of these Aveyron dolmens reveal a large amount of ornaments, arrowheads as well as many daggers.
Culturally one can find these standing stones at the crossroads of several areas, thus possible different influences. However the archaeological remains found in Aveyron seem to be only concurrent with the group called Treilles. This Chalcolithic group has been extensively documented as studied on the Grands Causses, thus considered significant, as a quite early copper metallurgy activity. The abundance of archaeological sites as well as their associated artefacts seem to confirm a period of rapid population growth of livestock farmers.
Manufacturing These Statues-Menhirs
The used materials come from nearby rocky deposits. In some cases, the blocks were hauled over several kilometres; three kilometres for the Pierre Plantée — 4.5 metres high and 9 tonnes — five kilometres for the Dame de Saint-Sernin, and close to fifteen kilometres for the statue of Maurels.
Obviously moving large stones required prior work to be done in the nearby forests as well as organization skills such as clearing and/or use of the main roads, large enough to accommodate the move, and use of specific traction devices such as sleds and corduroy roads. Erection of these monuments must have a large number of prehistoric communities involved, however it seems inconsistent — and more questions are arising — when thinking around the concept of small groups of people originally living in these regions, somehow gathering from time to time and furthermore partnering up to erect these statues-menhirs in such a dense forest.
Once the boulder extracted or simply picked up, next work involved preparing its surface. Only one technique was used, roughening with a non-metallic hammer and a roller of quartz or granite could do the trick. Then a coarse polishing by using water and sand could take place, thus equalizing the anterior face and the two sides.
Next step varied and was mainly dependent on the used materials. Two different techniques could have been used: either bas-relief sculpting or relief engraved, embossed sculpting.
Sanstone statues are usually carved in bas-relief as this relatively soft stone is very sculpting suitable. Next, sculptors had to remove some material in order to display a form. Granite — more rarely slate — standing stones were more difficult to sculpt out of. Faces were then carved hollow.
Once the basic shape given, sculptors would make changes like giving a sex to the statue itself. This would be done hollow, even though the statue-menhir was already carved. At the same time the opposite sex would be carved too. However no details were to be given, only a rough hammering — quite symbolic but still visible as of today — would be performed.
Enigmatic Sculptures but New Discoveries
During the past fifteen years unique but unusual representations have been discovered. Back in 1912, only thirty one statues-menhirs were to be known, then up to nearly fifty in the 1970s, whereas of today one can find an ensemble of one hundred and forty five prehistoric monuments.
In recent decades a large number of archaeological objects — tools, ceramics — have been unearthed in the neighbourhood of known statues-menhirs, thus indicating a high probability of human presence and habitat. Usually sculptures are to be found where slopes are less marked, where there is potential for agriculture and/or livestock and easy traffic to nearby areas. Statues-menhirs are not linked to transients searching for game or other resources but to settled farmers, living in the region 5000 years ago.
A New Look
The actual meaning as well as the role of these statues-menhir is yet to be fully understood. Several generations of scholars have expressed varying assumptions like divine representations or protective figures for hunters, however there is no definite answer yet.
As of today research is turning its attention to the social organization aspect of these communities. As scholars know the late Neolithic — in western Europe anyways — is highlighted by a fierce competition between these communities, there would be sense to imagine some charismatic figures might have emerged amongst these groups. As well as such personalities are necessary to these groups, statues-menhirs could represent charismatic dignitaries, where mythical ancestors would be represented, thus becoming symbols of a genealogy, an anchor to the local populations' collective memory.
The statues-menhirs might be evoking heroes or dignitaries. No matter what, they do represent beings holding power. Moreover, the importance or the prestige attached to these characters caused human groups to partner up and search for large boulders sometimes a few kilometres away, sculpting them and erecting these monuments. Indeed this is the first time Man chooses the stone as a large-scale representation of himself, at a size close to human one though. However one can find a colossal representation — 4.5 metres high — like the Pierre Plantée on the high foothills of Lacaune nearby.
The Statues-Menhirs, a European Phenomenon
The Rouergue statues-menhirs belong to the large format anthropomorphic representations class, and were erected between the mid-4th and the end of the 3rd millennium BC, and scattered throughout the northern fringes of the Mediterranean Sea.
The south of France has a high concentration of human figures carved during the late Neolithic period — 3rd millennium BC — found mainly in Rouergue — old name for an area containing Aveyron and some nearby regions — Languedoc, and Provence but also other parts of Europe, like Switzerland, Italy, and the northern side of the Black Sea.
Further east, a small number of monuments has been unearthed in Bulgaria and Greece. As well an important set of monuments located on the eastern edge of Europe — between the Danube delta and the lower Don — has been found, lastly in Crimea too.
The Land of the Statues-Menhirs
The most distant monuments are located within a one-day walking distance from the central area location where the sculptures are confined. This mountainous rugged terrain covers the actual south of the département of Aveyron, as well as the département Tarn, and part of the département Hérault.
In this region of contrasted climate, current forests — beech, oak — although transformed by Man, one can imagine the landscape at the times when statues-menhirs were erected. It is likely forests covered most areas and residential areas back then were correlated to activities such as crop and pasture. Many boulders of all sizes were available, thus making possible the Megalitic expansion and the mining of resistant rocks used for tools. In this environment many standing stones and menhirs were discovered, close to ancient communication routes, near checkpoints, ridgelines, fords. passes and valleys. Several deposits of copper ore are known to be sitting in the vicinity of these areas of which only one, Bouco Payrol — see the black and pink star on the map — delivered traces of a prehistoric exploitation.
Photos credit: Musée Fenaille in Rodez.
Maps freely adapted from Musée Fenaille material.
French to English translation by Experience (my) France.
The Musée Fenaille was founded in 1836 by a group of Aveyron scholars and notables. Its international fame is based on its exceptional collection of statues-menhirs. It holds a unique set of nineteen original pieces known as the oldest monumental statues in western Europe that were erected 3000 years BC.