Friday, April 16, 2010

Good Old Fashioned Megalith Raising (Montneuf)

What sweeter thought is there upon awakening than "Today, we get to help raise a megalith!" Had I but known of the adventure ahead, I would have specified, we get to move a 1500kg (3300 pounds) megalith and raise a 500kg megalith (1100 pounds)! Here's the crew excited and ready, entering the wondrous site of Montneuf. I cannot sing the praises of this megalithic site enough: this was my fifth time there and still the presence of those stones and the beauty of the site takes my breath away. Add the incredible care with which the team that runs it takes care of the site, and a gorgeous spring day and, truly, you had the perfect scenario for a megalith raising!

Our terrific guide for this day-long endeavor (including the blissfully obligatory 2-hour French pause for lunch) was Elsa, and she had the kids working with the megaliths right away. We found traces of archaeologists' presence in the 1990s and talked a good deal about archaeological method (Iris was utterly attentive). We then set off to an open field where our megaliths awaited. But first, you have to carry the rope there without letting it touch the ground. Note the gusto with which Iris is walking so that he hair swings.

Elsa asked the kids to suggest different ways of tying the rope so that the "raft" that the stone was on could glide on the logs beneath. Here's Iris trying to puzzle that one out. Several of the farther stones in the region were carried 2 or 3 miles using a raft-atop-logs technique much like this. Labor intensive doesn't even begin to describe what we're looking at here. Labor and time (generations of both) were given to these projects.

Both Iris and Oliver lashed the rope to the raft. And then came the Big Question: how many people (kids first!) will it take to move that 1500kg stone across the first three or four logs?

The answer turned out to be 4 adults and 8 kids, and here are the kids giving it their all! We grown-ups became bold and tried to do it with just 6 adults, and guess what? We barely budged it! Turns out 8 little kids make a huge difference! Who worked on these megaliths has always been a topic of debate, linked to whether or not raising the stones was itself some kind of communal, perhaps even ceremonial act. Watching those kids out there today, I started thinking about multiple generations working on these sites.

Once we'd moved our mega megalith, we moved over to a smaller one for us to hoist up (turns out it takes a lot more people to lift one of these stones than to move one - marvelously simple physics there: out has less resistance than up). Here is Elsa explaining the mechanics of the "chèvre" (A-frame), as it will effortlessly lift our 500kg megalith from supine to triumphant.

Turns out it was pretty difficult! It's this part of the narrative of megaliths that invites the most speculation and play: how did a civilization with such simple tools and no written language accomplish a feat that still denies explanation? As Mac and I watched the event unfold, we came to the realization that, indeed, language is everything in this situation because so very much of the effort needs to be co-ordinated. Without some kind of signal to co-ordinate movements, nothing works. We had to try try again here.

But in the end, determination (and some basic mechanics) prevailed.

As dramatic and exciting as it all was, sweet Eleanor slept through the whole thing, curled up in her Daddy's jacket. Is this what little Neolithic kids did, too? It was a blissfully warm day and really, she makes the nap look good.

The irrepressible joy I was feeling today (talk about chance of a lifetime!) led to some inexorably goofy faces - but hey! we were picnicking in the Neolithic Pedagogical Village and Oliver was reporting on a saber-tooth tiger sighting. Tired as we were from yesterday's travels, we were also immensely satisfied to have wrestled with and "tamed" a couple of giant megalith. You might find this absurd, but I was reminded of the incredible spectacle that is a Spanish bullfight, specifically Hemingway's famous assessment of "grace under pressure." It's not so much the grace under pressure part (see photo above), but rather the conviction that the megalith is itself a huge, willful beast. There is something deeply satisfying about witnessing the rock do what you want it to do after pulling on it and adjusting its supports, and feeling its weight fight back.

Iris was elated - happy as a lark and full of projects...

...such as this one. Nice aesthetic, no?

After lunch, it was Diorama time, in which a series of Neolithic activities (from making rope, to using stone cutting tools, to tying knots) were used to create our diorama version of the day's event: the moving and hoisting of the megalith. Iris jumped right in to help make a rope...

...and she and Oliver set about de-barking (technical term?) small branches with sharp-edged stone tools to make the raft for our megalith.

The end result was pretty swell! Oliver found us a great megalith and Iris added a touch of landscape with the green moss she found. I don't know if you can see our little people made of neolithic clay (ochre colored) - they didn't fare so well, but a little plasticine at home and they were as good as new. I couldn't help but (over)interpret the idea of making a diorama - of putting all that we had learned to a scale in which we were masters and orchestrators of little worlds and in which the megaliths that had made us sweat and strain but a couple of hours ago were now our playthings.

So did Neolithic culture have the capacity for allegory? It was the physical work (struggle) with the standing stones that brought out these allegories for me in which the stones became metaphors for the insurmountable, the unchanging, for willful forces of nature. The archaeologists of Montneuf think that the stones are probably just boundary markers between territories. But 420 stones to make a territory? I think of all the effort and all of the confrontations between people and stone in raising 420 of these megaliths. Was the activity of raising the megalith a lesson in human dominance of nature, or was it to teach humility in the face of nature? And how on earth did they find the one activity that does both? Geniuses.


  1. Current thinking about megaliths connects them strongly with ancestors, so community building in the present, and across time to the past, makes a lot of sense.

    Thanks! Great post!

  2. Thanks, Saxus
    Time, as an extrapolation of space (the reaches of territory, earthly and memorable) - there are so many ways to think of this without opposing time and space - so glad you'll be seeing these beauties.