Rooting with stones #2

Changing agency in an imaginary landscape

Menhirs of Monteneuf, Morbihan, Brittany © An Peelaerts (2021)

The power of stories

People love stories. Our whole lives are made up of stories. Some researchers say that the main reason why humans developed speech is… ‘gossip’. Whether or not a specific person is reliable or not, is indeed crucial information to our survival. We have been telling each other stories for ages, and so did we in prehistoric times. Wouldn’t it be great to know what these stories were like, what they were about? We love to tell stories about other people, certainly when they are hidden, secret, or difficult to get at. And so we try relentlessly, in various ways, to unravel the mysteries surrounding the stories we will never know and call it ‘science’ or ‘art’ or ‘religion’. And so we feel tremendous joy when we have managed to uncover even the slightest bit of evidence that we think might help us reconstruct the story we want to tell. We would do anything to catch even the slightest glimpse of who we were in this very distant mirror of time, standing on the tip of our toes and squeezing our eyes to slits, blinded by the light and disturbed by the noisy frequencies that prevent us from seeing clearly who we really are.

The ancient stories of the statues-menhirs

Megaliths, menhirs and statue-menhirs, belong to the realm of story, and we will never know how these stories went. Maybe the Rougier with its burgundy-red colored earth and its canyon-like landscapes, was considered sacred because of its color and associated with the supernatural or the subterranean. Maybe the statues-menhirs were hybrid mythical creatures, human descendants of the divine, endowed with magical powers, placed on this ancestral earth to subdue dark forces and bring order to the universe. Maybe they stood there to protect travelers or traders that had to cross this territory associated with the gods and considered inaccessible or dangerous to men. Maybe that was why at the time of their erection, no-one lived in this place. Who knows?

A lot has been said and written by academics about the possible meaning and function of megaliths, and menhirs more specifically. Often, when archaeologists must deal with a mysterious artefact or with an archaeological context they can’t explain, they will classify it as ‘religion’ or ‘ritual practice’ and so is the case for the statue-menhirs. Every group of people tells important stories (or myths) about their origin, about the birth of the universe, the legitimacy of power, …. I believe that the story of the statues-menhirs was certainly an important one, that reproduced the core values and beliefs of the people that created them. I don’t want to aim at reconstructing their story, but I would like to share an idea about the way statue-menhirs might have functioned to create the story. I recently read a paper by academic Chris Scarre and his ideas provided me with interesting food for thought and stimulated me in my imaginary wanderings through the ancient landscape. I would like to share this with you:

Ethnography suggests that prominent landscape features were invested with special significance by prehistoric communities, as sites of mythological or sacred importance. (…) Large stones are associated with mythological explanations and may become objects of worship, isolated rocks and outcrops being considered especially significant. (…) It can be argued that by taking megalithic blocks from places such as these, the significance and power of their symbolic or supernatural associations was also appropriated. The colour, shape and texture of the blocks will have provided visual clues to their origin, and may have been sufficient to connect them at once to particular places within the landscape. (…) If those sources were already considered places of power in the landscape, the use of largely unworked blocks may have been a means of visibly appropriating those powers of place.”

Scarre (2009) Stones with character: animism, agency and megalithic Monuments, in: Materialitas: working stone, carving identity, pp.9-18.

While, in my regard, this idea works quite well as far as menhirs are concerned, it might not quite so for statues-menhirs. Scientific research suggests that the statues-menhirs of the Rouerge were painted. This means that the surface of the stone was not visible at the time of erection and that there was no visual link available with their provenance.

Whether or not the statues-menhirs as a phenomenon are rooted in European megalithism and the erection of menhirs, is a big scientific discussion, which I am not familiar with and which I do not intend to explore here. I just wish to point out that their respective names suggest that they are closely related, while we are in fact dealing with two phenomena that are set far apart in time and might have arisen from very different historical evolutions.

Both menhirs and statue-menhirs acted as intermediaries between man and the natural world, since it would be difficult to see them apart from the environment in which they were placed. But I do believe that the message they convey about the way humans perceived their relationship with what surrounded them is fundamentally different.

My experience of landscape with menhirs is indeed not quite the same as with the statues-menhirs I encountered in the Rougier. In fact, none of them (except maybe one or two) have been found in situ. Moreover, most of the originals are on permanent display in the archaeological museum of Rodez (or elsewhere) and have been replaced with replicas. These replicas have been placed near roads and parking lots, most of the time not quite at the places where they were found originally. The authentic experience of the statues-menhirs in their original environment is clearly lost. But even this put aside, I don’t think that the statues-menhirs would invite me to sit down at their feet and direct my regard outwards, towards the landscape, the way menhirs do. Instead, they invite me to look at them, they invite me to look at them very carefully and admire all the subtle carvings – softened and often almost erased by time – that make out their face, their clothing, and all the attributes they hold.

So, through my personal encounter with both menhirs and statue-menhirs in their respective environments, I would say that we are dealing with two quite different phenomena. What they have in common, is that they both testify of a desire to erect large stones in a wild, untamed environment. But why does one explicitly represent humans and the other not? What can this difference tell us about their respective nature? I would like to share with you my own interpretation and briefly describe some of the contexts in which the apparition of the statue-menhirs should be seen.

A different perception of the environment

If we consider the entire span of time in which man has been making art – beginning tens of thousands of years ago – human representation in artistic expression has been a very marginal phenomenon for most of the time. Animal representation dominates during most of prehistory and animals illustrate the relationship of man with nature in their corresponding hunting-gathering societies. With the emergence of agriculture during the neolithic, the nature of this relationship seems to change profoundly, and human representation becomes more and more important. In the South of France, this process manifests itself by the abrupt disappearance of animal representations in parietal cave art and the simultaneous discreet emergence of small clay humaniform figurines. These figurines precede the appearance of big humaniform sculptures towards the end of the neolithic, of which the statues-menhirs of the Rouerge are an historically negotiated, local manifestation.

At the same time, along with the development of agriculture and the appearance of humaniform art, important social changes happen due to strong demographic growth. The rank and status of individuals become the foundations of internal group relations and the role of social hierarchies become more important. These are important background settings to which the appearance of the statues-menhirs should be seen.

The statues-menhirs of the Rouerge indeed very explicitly represent men and women; their bodily features are indisputably represented in a very detailed way, as well as all the attributes they hold. They don’t refer to anything other than themselves and they don’t seem to derive their power from anything else than themselves. They evoke the idea of individuals that look all different yet the same and all have their personal story to tell. They are firmly rooted in the natural space that at the time of their erection, is becoming more and more fragmented by human presence. They structure the landscape and become points of reference in a vast network of a growing number of communities that connect distant places.

This observation of individualities made me wonder if this is where our feelings of separateness from nature took root. According to Scarre, as we can read in the citation above, during some of the prehistoric times man interfered in the landscape’s narrative by moving megalithic blocks from one place to another. He simply changes the narrative – probably for his own benefit – by re-arranging some of the elements that make up the narrative. This specific way of interfering with the environment, doesn’t yet attribute a too great role to man himself (other than being the one making it all up). The main source of power still lies within the natural elements themselves, or the way they are used to refer to other powerful places.

To me, the statue-menhirs convey a different message. They do not refer to other powerful natural elements to legitimate their power. They only refer to themselves. They place ‘man’ on the same level as nature itself and make him the main actor in the narrative of which he had only been the narrator until then. I wonder if the statues-menhirs betray feelings of dominance towards the natural world. And I also wonder if the emergence of individuality inevitably leads to feelings of separateness from nature. The neolithic (r)evolution certainly brought along and important shift in consciousness and the perception of our relationship with the world. I believe that the mayor turning point that has led humankind into the Anthropocene, has not been the industrial revolution, as often suggested, but the time when man became sedentary and abandoned its nomadic lifestyle.

>>> How do you think the story of the statue-menhirs went? If you would have to write a short story about them, what would they be? Robots? Petrified humans? Giant fossilized cookies? Invaders from outer space having failed their mission to colonize the earth?

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