Thirteen Aligned Neolithic Menhirs Discovered in a Small Swiss Town
A group of 13 aligned menhirs believed to be from the Neolithic period have been found in Switzerland’s Valais canton, in the municipality of Saint-Léonard. This discovery was made as part of excavation work at a construction site called “Les Fougains” (The Fountains) in collaboration with the cantonal office of archaeology, as reported in the local St. Leonard news site.
The researchers are currently conducting a Carbon-14 dating analysis to determine more about these stones and how early they were positioned here during the Neolithic period. This would be consistent with many other discoveries made in the region around Saint-Léonard. For example, the Neolithic rock carving at nearby Crete des Barmes is a Swiss heritage site of national significance.
Also, there is a Neolithic necropolis known as “Le Petit Chasseur” (the little hunter) in the town of Sion just 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) away, reports the Heritage Daily. Here in 1961, three dolmens were discovered along with 30 menhir standing stones, all dated to between 2900 and 2200 BC.
More recently, as Ancient Origins reported in July 2019, a further six menhirs were uncovered during construction work in another part of Switzerland, under circumstances similar to the latest find at Saint-Léonard. The most recently discovered 13 menhirs, however, seem to be much larger, and so a direct comparison is unlikely.
Excavation work at the site in Saint-Léonard Switzerland where the aligned group of 13 menhirs were discovered during a construction project. (Saint-Léonard)
Menhirs And the Science of Radiocarbon Dating
The Carbon-14 analysis method, commonly known as radiocarbon dating, which has been used to date previous menhir finds, was developed in the late 1940s at the University of Chicago by Willard Libby (who would later receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his ground-breaking work).
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Its primary usage was to help develop a method to date when a plant or animal died by measuring radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon. However, the technique has been revised over the years to recalibrate the system and thus provide more accurate results.
The radiocarbon dating of the recently found 13 menhirs is currently in progress. And it will be very interesting how these standing stones fit in with greater prehistoric landscape. The on-site survey is almost complete and once finished the stones will be transported from the current site for further examinations.
The Neolithic Revolution spans a period from about 10,000 BC to about 3,800 BC as the map above clearly shows the change to farming and “civilizations” began first in the Fertile Crescent and then spread from there all the way to northern Ireland and Scandinavia. (Detlef Gronenborn, Barbara Horejs, Börner, Ober / CC BY 4.0)
The Neolithic Revolution in Europe
One way of explaining the Neolithic Revolution is to say that global temperatures rose across the planet starting about 12,000 years ago. This likely led to conditions that were ideal for human beings to settle down and practice agriculture, after so many thousands of years of hunting and gathering.
Around 11,000-10,000 BC, the Neolithic period began in the Fertile Crescent (present-day Iraq and Iran), which at the time was a bourgeoning area full of trees and rivers like the mighty Tigris River. Soon similar agricultural settlements began emerging all over the globe in key locations.
Animal domestication also began around this time, particularly the rearing of poultry and dairy animals, and sheep. Suddenly the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was no longer the dominant mode of survival.
It was in the Neolithic period that the use of stone tools became much more sophisticated (and basic metals also entered the fray), including in the realm of agriculture.
Social stratification and civilization also developed during the Neolithic Revolution as human beings settled down and didn’t have to constantly fight with nature for survival. Instead, differentiation in skill sets evolved and people went from nuclear tribes to increasingly organized societies.
In Europe, the Neolithic period lasted for about 3,000 years between 4,500 BC and 1,700 BC. Along with tools, the use of mud and clay developed, particularly with pottery, and settlements became larger with actual buildings. There was a certain variety amongst local Neolithic cultures in Europe at this time, but some things were common to all.
This is another famous Swiss menhir known as the Menhire von Clendy. (tauav / Adobe Stock)
Menhirs and Other Liths
A menhir is a standing stone or lith. They are large, man-made and upright, typical of the European middle Bronze Age (3300 BC-1200 BC). While found on sites in Africa and Asia, and other parts of Europe, menhirs are most abundant in northwestern Europe.
Menhirs are sometimes found next to buildings and monuments with religious significance and are often in shapes and decorated with patterns (like semi-circles, horseshoes or circles) that suggest burial practices and other religious ceremonies. However, their exact function is a hotly debated topic even today.
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One of the most famous menhirs in Switzerland is the “Pierre du dos à l’âne” or “Donkey’s Back Stone” located in the Romont region near Auboranges. It is 18.3 feet (5.6 meters) high, and weighs 5,500 pounds (25 tons), and is the largest menhir to be found in the country. It too lay buried for many years until dug up by archaeologists in 1991.
Donkey’s Back Stone menhir in Auboranges, Switzerland. (Romont Region)
It was only in the 19th century, and properly in the middle of the 20th century, that menhirs could be scientifically dated.
Little is known of the social organization and religious beliefs of the Neolithic peoples who erected these stones, especially in the case of those decorated with some form of prehistoric art. They hold a space in popular culture and imagination, as for example in the famous French Asterix comic book series.
At the current site in Saint-Léonard an on-site survey of the stones is being carried out. The stones will then be removed for further inspection. And then discussions will be held with the local community to see how these incredible stone sculptures can best be “used.”
Top image: The recently discovered menhirs as they stood in the ground when discovered at Saint-Léonard, Switzerland. Source: St-leonard.ch
By Sahir Pandey
Heritage Daily. 2021. Archaeologists unearth alignment of menhirs at Saint-Leonard. Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2021/08/archaeologists-unearth-alignment-of-menhirs-at-saint-leonard/139857.
St. Leonard. 2021. An exceptional archaeological discovery. Available at: https://www.st-leonard.ch/index.php/172-une-decouverte-archeologique-exceptionnelle.