Megaliths Covered with Mysterious Engravings Unearthed in France
In 2018, archaeologists working for the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, or INRAP, uncovered an expansive and unusually well-preserved megalithic site near the municipality of Massogny in France. INRAP’s ongoing analysis of the stone megaliths and adjacent village found at the site called Chemin des Bels has revealed in-depth information about the beliefs and practices of the people who lived there in the distant past. Researchers now believe that they may have occupied the site for a time period that could best be measured in millennia rather than centuries.
South view of the one of the main megaliths which was discovered at the Chemin des Bels site in southeastern France. (Florent Notier / INRAP)
Neolithic Village Built Around Megaliths in France
Excavations at Chemin des Bels, undertaken on behalf of the French Ministry of Culture, revealed the presence of a Neolithic village that had been constructed around a pre-existing stone megalith complex in France. This village has now been definitively linked to the Cortaillod culture, which emerged in this region around 4,300 BC and flourished for about 800 years. Located in the Lake Geneva area of southeastern France, the findings have been detail in a recent article on Archaeology News Network and an extensive report was published on the INRAP website.
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In its original form, this stone megalith complex consisted of a heavy stone pillar surrounded by a circle of smaller stone towers. The central pillar was 11 feet (3.4 m) long, 3.6 feet (1.1 m) wide, and 3.2 feet (1 m) high, and weighed approximately five tons (4.53 t). At one end, it was carved into a sloping, pointed shape, which suggests it was built to be installed in a standing position. But for some reason, the pillar had been left resting on its side from the moment it was brought to the site.
The towers surrounding it were approximately 3.28 feet (1 m) high and arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the central horizontally-positioned pillar. Eight of these short stone columns were found during the excavations, but the shape and dimensions of the circle they formed would have required 15 standing columns to completely close it. This is how the complex was constructed originally. But it was later altered, for reasons unknown.
The large stone megalithic slab seen with different filters. (Julie Boudry / INRAP)
Megalithic Complex Modified for Unknown Reasons
In the later version, the standing stone towers were flipped on their sides and buried. They were partially replaced by platforms made from pebbles that were built around the central slab, which preserved its identify as the main focus of the site. Most intriguingly, closer examination of the stone surfaces of the megaliths revealed the presence of markings or engravings, designed in distinctive but enigmatic patterns.
On the large stone, 20 cup or scoop marks had been carved out, forming the shape of a large U. Pitted indentations had been made around some of the cups and beneath the U, creating a horizontal rectangular band. Near the apex of the stone additional engravings were found, in the form a set of intertwined chevrons.
More geometric engravings were added to two of the smaller slabs, each of which had been intentionally broken (presumably before the engravings were added). These engravings formed quadrangular, herringbone, and cruciform patterns, which had been placed on top of each other in a way that may have been ordered but appeared haphazard.
Surface Markings on the Stone Megaliths Found in France
Just as the shape and contents of the megalithic complex had been altered over time, so too had the surface markings on the individual stones. It was possible to identify different sets of markings—and the sequences in which they were added—through the use of an imaging practice known as photogrammetric RTI (reflectance transformation imaging). This technology combines a fixed camera with a moving light source to bring out fine details that would otherwise remain inaccessible to the naked eye.
In the case of the large slab, photogrammetric RTI showed that the U shape was added first, followed by the pitted rectangle, and finally by the interlocked chevrons. On the smaller slabs, analysis revealed that the geometrical markings were also added in three distinct phases, and the new imagery was engraved on top of the existing imagery instead of below, above, or alongside it.
Archaeologists from INRAP have used photogrammetric RTI technology to bring out fine details on the megaliths found in France that would otherwise remain inaccessible to the naked eye. (Julie Boudry / INRAP)
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But what does this sequence of markings on the megaliths mean? Does it reveal the creative processes of a single engraver creating a complex design? Or does it mean that multiple engravers were responsible for the final product, with each adding something new to the existing rock face? It is known that the adjacent village was intentionally built next to the megalithic complex, rather than the other way around. This implies a fluid and evolving social and cultural history at the site, raising the possibility that changes to megalithic architecture and iconography were made over the course of decades or centuries by people with differing beliefs and motivations.
Drawing made by experts from INRAP which uses the RTI photo of one of the broken stone megalith slabs found in France as the basis to show the different engraving phases. (Sylvie Cousseran-Nere / INRAP)
What Were the Megalithic Builders Trying to Tell Us?
The ultimate intentions of the megalithic builders and engravers who worked at the Chemin des Bels site are destined to remain obscure. It is nevertheless impossible not to speculate on who built these megaliths were and what they were trying to tell us:
- Were the stones carved, engraved, and erected to serve some ritual or spiritual purpose?
- Were the stones plus the engravings a form of artistic expression, combining specific and abstract elements in a way that would be difficult for modern analysts to comprehend?
- Do the engravings represent a form of communication, carrying messages that their creators assumed would be understood even in the far future?
- Could the engravings (and the arrangements of the stones) somehow relate to astronomical observations or other patterns detected in nature, and associated ideas about what those observations or patterns might mean?
- Did the modifications made to the engravings contain social, cultural, or historical information that educated observers would know how to decode?
- Could the changes made to the engravings have been the equivalent of graffiti, motivated by a desire to either personalize their meaning or erase it?
In the end, such questions are unanswerable. But even if definitive interpretations remain partially or wholly elusive, the fact that these awe-inspiring megalithic sites exist at all tells us something about the complexity and creativity of the minds that conceived and constructed these megaliths discovered in modern-day France.
Top image: The team conducted a RTI photogrammetric survey of the megaliths found in France, including the large slab seen here. Source: Anicet Konopka / INRAP
By Nathan Falde