Rooting with stones

Imaginary wanderings through the ancient landscapes of South-Aveyron (France)

La statue-menhir de Pousthomy © Steloweb


In 2016 I moved from the Campine in Belgium to a rural, mountainous region in the South of France. This blog tells the story of my rooting in this new environment of the South-Aveyron, that is fundamentally different from the urban atmosphere I grew up in. Quite immediately after I set foot in the Aveyron for the first time, I found myself standing face to face with these enigmatic prehistoric characters sculpted in stone, known as “the statues-menhirs of the Rouerge”. This encounter has sparked my imagination and shaped my experience of the vast, ancient landscapes I was about to discover. These landscapes, in turn, and the way I established my relationship with them, have been a key factor in my rooting process in my newly found home base.

The statues-menhirs of the Rouerge

The statues-menhirs of the Rouerge are a unique group of late Stone Age sculptures. The oldest examples might date back as far as 3300 B.C. The bodily features of these mysterious men and women are carefully sculpted or carved out in the surface of the stone slabs: their face (with what is believed are facial scarifications), hair, arms, legs, breasts, clothing and attributes (jewelry, tools, belts, …). ‘The Rouerge’ is a former province of France, corresponding roughly with the actual department of the Aveyron. The area in which the statues-menhirs have been found, is much smaller and is located in the south of the department, called the Rougier, after the red colored soil that characterizes the landscape.

La dame de Saint-Sernin © Office de Tourisme Rougier Aveyron Sud

Pre-history is Mystery

These stone men and women are surrounded by mystery. Only a few of them have been found in situ, archaeological contexts are absent and no related habitation sites could be identified. As a result, dating has not proved easy. Based on iconographic similarities between the attributes depicted on the stelae and certain objects found at archaeological sites, researchers finally attributed the statues-menhirs to the Treille group. These people lived on the plateaus of the Grands Causses, situated to the north-east of the area where the statues-menhirs have been found. They were farmers and herded large flock of sheep on the vast plains of the plateaus, mined copper and took advantage of natural caves for shelter, which are very common in the calcareous subsoil of the Causses.

In what follows I would like to tell you about how the story of the statues-menhirs became intertwined with mine and how a landscape can influence a person’s life. I hope to convey some of my passion for the natural beauty of the South-Aveyron, and maybe to inspire some of you to one day come and explore this beautiful, enchanted country.

How it all began…

I remember looking at a particular geographical map in a thick and heavy book in February 2016, more than six years ago now. I was sitting in the seven meters long caravan which was then the house of Régis, my lover – who is still my partner today and the father of my son. I had met him only a few weeks earlier while walking the famous fishermen’s trail along the eastern coast of the Algarve in Portugal.

Caravan at the farm, a temporary home © An Peelaerts

The caravan and its small crackling woodstove offered a cozy shelter from the drizzle and the misty weather outside. I was experiencing a typical continental winter in the southernmost spur of the Central Massif, which stretches into the department of Aveyron in Southwestern France. I was doing some reading in preparation of a small road trip, waiting for Régis to finish work on his farm. At that time of year, this consisted mainly of feeding the animals. It was just one month before the goats had to give birth, which would mark the start of the new season of cheese-making. The goats didn’t have to be milked, neither they had to be taken outside to graze. Everything was peaceful and quiet on the farm, so there was some free time to explore the countryside, its impressive landscapes and most importantly… its megaliths.

The goats at the farm © An Peelaerts (2016)

I had gone to the library in the village the day before and had borrowed all the books they had on local megalithic monuments. I remember the volunteer on duty giving me some suspicious looks from behind the glasses sitting on the tip of her nose. I imagine she must have found it odd to have this ultra-blond-haired foreigner (I was indeed very unsuccessfully trying to hide my Germanic accent) ask for books on a subject matter normally only the grey-haired people from the local history society are ever interested in. Moreover, at that time of the year there is usually no single tourist around in remote French villages like these. I still can hear her wondering: ‘Who is she?’

The village of Belmont-sur-Rance, a few km from the farm © An Peelaerts (2016)

A Flemish girl from the Campine

When I left Belgium for hiking the Fisherman’s Trail along the Algarve coast in January 2016, I had just finished working on a project in collection management at a Flemish museum of fine arts. I was living in an apartment in an abandoned warehouse, and with a group of friends we had organized a big New Year’s Eve party in one of the factory halls. I was in my early thirties and felt quite satisfied with my life, but still I felt like something was missing. Finding a balance between conformism and living according to my own values, has been a difficult exercise throughout most of my life. I had always been dreaming of a different life, a life that made more sense.

Since I was a teenager, I have always felt like an ‘alien’ in an out-of-control system that mainly focuses on consumption, unlimited growth and efficiency. It was difficult for me to find my place in a society where female values such as care and intuition are systematically undervalued. It wasn’t until I embarked on my studies in anthropology around the age of 23 – after obtaining my master’s degree in archaeology – that I felt that what I was being taught in an educational institution was resonating with who I was. At last, I got to attend classes by people who didn’t seem otherworldly to me, who knew of other cultures, places and thinking and who put forward an uttermost critical view of our own society.

… met a French farmer in Portugal

After a few days of walking the Fishermen’s Trail in January 2016, I arrived on a farm in a small village of the Algarve coast where I would spend the night in a dorm. I shared the evening meal with the volunteers staying at the farm as I was happy to socialize after having spent a lot of time alone hiking in nature. This is where I met Régis. At the end of the evening, he asked me if he could join me on the rest of my trip. At first, I felt a bit hesitant, but I was charmed by his boldness and finally I agreed. I left the next morning and he caught up with me a few days later, hitch-hiking. We spent the following days together, walking through the majestic scenery of the wild Algarve coastline, the perfect setting to fall in love. We had long talks during our walks and what impressed me most about him, was the way he had decided to become a farmer. His idealistic, militant ideas about resilient ways of food production, organic agriculture and ecological transition resonated strongly with my own ideas about how to live a meaningful life. Shortly after returning home to the Campine, I decided to visit him at his farm in France. Soon after I got there, I realized I had not only fallen in love with a man, but also with a place. I was amazed by the vastness and the beauty of the Aveyron landscapes and I realized that the way people related to their environment was very different from the place I came from. The Aveyron is a department that thrives on agriculture and I got to meet a lot of young, dynamic farmers and artisans through the network Régis introduced me to. People that work the earth to make a living and produce food, are much more firmly rooted in their natural space. This profoundly affects their being and the way they relate to each other. Social relations are much more defined by mutual aid and exchange. I found that values that I consider important, such as care (for plants, animals and human beings) and well-being, are placed at the core of everyday work and life. So it was, while my relationship with Régis was taking form, that slowly I started to wonder if this was the place where I would be able to build a meaningful life

Ancient stones, landscapes and ecology

I like to visit old places, stone ruins or abandoned sites. Places where the echoes of human presence are fading, but still perceivable. Places where nature is taking over again and thus reminding us of who we are by putting everything in the relative perspective of impermanence. Places where I can feel insignificant and whole at the same time, part of the mystery that is life. That’s why, when I travel to a place I haven’t been before, I usually try to find out if there are some prehistoric or megalithic monuments around and try to go and visit them.

Megaliths usually mark special places in a landscape and have been a focus of attention and energy for ages. Megalithic sites, no matter how grand or modest they may be, represent to me an invitation to contemplate the landscape that surrounds them. These stones are relics of an era when man had great knowledge of the wild environment and found himself immersed in it. The landscape was their narrative, full of meaning. These stones are witnesses of a time and place we cannot get access to, and they convey a message that is no longer ‘knowable’ to us. Thus, they invite us to leave our obsession with the ratio behind and to rely on our senses. By tuning in energetically to these stone sculptures, I feel somehow connected to the ancestral times they refer to.

The way we – in Western societies – perceive our relationship with the natural world is fundamentally different from the way humans did in prehistoric times. We think ourselves as being separate from nature rather than being part of it. This feeling of ‘separateness’ is at the root of the ecological disasters we are facing today. We have come to think of nature as something we can ‘control’ or ‘possess’ and so we have come to fail to understand that by harming ‘nature’, we are in fact harming ourselves.

This is how visiting megalithic sites has become a remedy to me over the years. They offer to me an opportunity to re-connect with nature and travel to an imaginary time and place where the impact of human activity on earth’s ecosystems wasn’t yet as disastrous as today. For me, this is a way to cope with my grievance over the harm that is done to the beautiful planet that is our home

My ‘discovery’ of the statue-menhirs

The map I was looking at, sitting in the caravan on that misty day in February in 2016, came from one of the books I had borrowed from the library, entitled: “Statues-menhirs. Des énigmes de pierre venues du fond des âges”. It showed me that the statues-menhirs of the Rouerge only occur in a rather small, well-defined geographical area and are commonly sub-divided in four groups. The one centered in and around the valley of the river Rance seemed to be the most significant one, with around forty statues known today and containing the most beautifully sculptured examples.

The farm I was staying at – and which would later become my home – was located right on the banks of this river, which swirled around it in a big S- shaped meander. I realized I was finding myself right at the epicenter of the area in which these enigmatic stone statues had been dwelling for ages.

The farm ‘Limou’ in spring, the line of trees in the foreground indicating the course of the river Rance © An Peelaerts (2016)

I felt amazed by this finding, as if it were a privilege of some kind. Where they welcoming me? Still floating on the high that serendipity usually brings along, I made a second unexpected ‘discovery’. It appeared that one of the main researchers on the subject was an archaeologist I had met years before. In early spring 2010, I volunteered as a freshly graduated anthropology student on an archaeological dig of a megalithic site in the South of Corsica, under the direction of André d’Anna, a specialist in Mediterranean megalithism. I spent a few weeks hidden in the Corsican maquis, scraping away thin layers of dust with my trowel, uncovering the foundations of what was believed to be a small menhir. On this occasion I learned a lot about anthropomorphism[1] in Corsican bronze age megalithism. A few weeks later that year, I would leave for Mongolia and participate in an excavation of a bronze age settlement, led by an American university. I became quite interested in anthropomorphic megalithism, as I had the opportunity to travel the steppes and visit many of the famous bronze age deer stone stelae there. 

Alignment of statue-menhirs, Stantari, Cauria, Corsica © An Peelaerts (2010)
Bronze Age deerstone, Huvsgul Province, Mongolia © An Peelaerts (2010)

While megalithism is a widespread phenomenon in Europe – and the world, the geographical distribution of anthropomorphic megalithism is a lot more uneven and discontinuous. Although they occur more or less on the whole surface of the European continent, there are only a few areas in which their presence is more important in numbers and where they show a high level of iconographic homogeneity. Some well-known examples are the statues-menhirs of the Crimean Peninsula, Sardinia and… the Rouerge in Aveyron. Only, I had never heard of them before I got to this place.

[1] Anthropomorphism is the tendency of humans to want to imbed consciousness into inanimate and non-human life-forms. In bronze age megalithism it is sometimes observed that stone age menhirs are re-used and sculpted to represent human figures.


A. Phillipon et al. (2002) Statues-menhirs, énigmes de pierre venues du fond des âges. Rodez, éditions du Rouerge.

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