Rare Stone Steles With Unknown Figures Found At Neolithic Site in Switzerland
A remarkable series of standing stones have been found near one of the most important Neolithic sites in Switzerland, and indeed in the entire Alpine region of Europe. The unearthed stones are casting more light on the Late Stone Age . In particular, they are helping researchers to understand the social rituals and beliefs of people in the Neolithic.
The exciting finds were made in Sion, in southwest Switzerland in the Canton of Valais. Experts from Valais’s buildings, monuments, and archaeology department made the discovery, completely by chance.
According to a press release from the Canton du Valais , the stones were found during “construction of a rental building at the Avenue du Petit-Chasseur”. Six standing stones were found but some had been damaged. One of the slabs of stone is approximately two tons in weight and needed to be lifted using heavy machinery.
Collection of the second standing stone. (© SBMA - ARIA SA )
Standing Stone Showing Neolithic Leader
The stones had once all been aligned in column or row. Three of the standing stones had been inscribed and have relief designs and are categorized as stele by archaeologists. Swissinfo.ch reports that the largest stone has a “male figure wearing geometrically patterned clothing and with a sun-like motif around his face”. The identity of the figure is not known but it probably portrays a chieftain or a political leader.
Two of the slabs have several cupules, which are circular indentations and are often seen at other Neolithic sites. Swissinfo.ch reports that these markings have “not been found before in Valais but have been found at a site near Aosta in Italy”. Based on the markings on the stones they have been tentatively dated to some 2,500 years ago, which is in the Late Neolithic period.
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A new type of stele? An anthropomorphic stele, standing stone, decorated with cupules. (© SBMA - ARIA SA )
Stone Age Necropolis
The latest discovery was made some 1,312 feet (400 meters) or a quarter of a mile from the very important Petit Chasseur necropolis in Sion. This is a Stone Age and Bronze Age site that was in use, on and off, for over 3,000 years. It was used by several cultures and it has yielded a variety of finds.
These included six dolmens, which are tombs made with a large flat stone placed on standing stones . There are also some nine cist graves , other burials, and also approximately 30 stele with anthropomorphic engravings, many of armed warriors.
View of the MVI dolmen and reconstitution of alignments of anthropomorphic stele erected on the eponymous site of the Petit-Chasseur. (© Cantonal Museums of Valais )
This site was excavated from the 1960s to the 1990s. The relationship between the six standing stones and the necropolis at Petit Chasseur is not known. The largest slab with an anthropomorphic figure, is similar to others found at the site first discovered in the early 1960s.
Given the close proximity of the six standing stones to the Petit Chasseur necropolis, it seems likely that the stones were part of the same cultural and ritual landscape as the necropolis. This landscape was apparently very important for local Stone Age and even later Bronze Age societies.
Were the Standing Stones Broken in Social Rituals?
One of the most important similarities between the new finds and the older necropolis was that standings stones had been deliberately broken at both sites. According to the Canton Du Valais press release the newly found stones “were deliberately broken and deposited on the ground”. There are several theories as to why this happened.
It is supposed that some of the broken stones found recently were used as construction materials for the nearby necropolis. Swissinfo.ch reports that the broken slabs may have been “used to construct dolmens previously found in the same area”. They may also have been broken as a result of social tensions or by invaders who occupied the area.
Some of the broken standing stones may have been used as construction materials for the Petit-Chasseur necropolis. (© SBMA - ARIA SA )
Do the Standing Stones Represent a New Warrior Elite?
However, the stones recently unearthed, which probably represented leaders, may have been broken as part of a social ritual, to express their power. The chieftain or leader represented by a stone, smashed the stele and the fragments were used to build another monument as part of a symbolic representation of his authority and control.
The stones were erected and engraved at a period of time when Neolithic societies were moving away from the egalitarian social organizations of the past. Warrior elites and chieftains were beginning to dominate societies and the standing stones , and their ritual destruction, probably show these leaders growing in control and power.
The chance discovery of the six standing stones is helping researchers to better understand the important necropolis at Petit Chasseur. They are allowing us to get a better view of the rituals and society of the Neolithic period. The stele also demonstrates the transition to a political organization dominated by a warrior elite in this era.
Top image: View of the 2019 construction site and the alignment of steles, standing stones. Source: © SBMA - ARIA SA .
By Ed Whelan