Saturday, May 15, 2010

Into the Neolithic Mind (Gavrinis)

Gaze intensely at our cheeses for the week, dear friends, as monsieur Le Fromagier informed me today that he'll be going on vacation for (yikes!) three weeks. Yes, it's worth thinking about how in France, the seller of cheeses gets six weeks vacation that he can take in three-week chunks. But I'm more focused (panicked about) how I'm to cope with his absence. I'll go to the grocery store, of course, but it just won't be the same (the chatting, the education - I realize just writing this now how nice it was of him to even tell me he was going on vacation). Well, all this to say that we will be especially savoring the Pavé (cobblestone) of Aveyron (a region in the south of France that also houses the incredible Abbey of Conques, and is rich in dolmens) which turns out to be a sheep cheese, but still has good bite; a tomme de vache (I missed the exact name, but this is the type); a raw milk goat cheese humbly entitled Le Villageois, made in the Poitou (great food and art there, too); and a good hunk of Morbier. Merci, monsieur Le Fromagier - bonnes vacances!

In the name of Continued Neolithic Exploration, we drove down to Gavrinis, heralded as the best neolithic site in all of France. For very specific reasons, that is absolutely right. Here are Mac and Eleanor getting excited, each in his and her own way. Dear Eleanor, what can she possibly think of all this? Oliver, who's actually pretty interested in all this, still asks questions like "Which came first, the Vikings or the Three Musketeers?" as he's starting to work out chronologies, and maybe even a sense of history. For Eleanor... I honestly don't know what all of this means. I know that she wants to share it all with her dear friend Sophie; I know that she likes to run around the sites; and maybe she has a sense of something important going on every once in a while. But mostly, they're just big rocks. True enough!

Whatever's she thinking about her wacky parents dragging her hither and yon, it doesn't stop her from showing just about the cutest excitement around. Oooo, those cheeks. Even though she turns four (no way!) next week, she still has the cheeks! Hither and yon here entails taking a boat ride, for that is the only way to get to Gavrinis. When the site was built in around 3500 B.C.E., what are now a series of islands (42 in this one spot of the GOlfe du Morbihan alone) were a huge land mass interpenetrated by three rivers. But the sea has reclaimed the land, and what was the highest point in the region has become the highest island all around.

They chose their spot well - you still have to climb up a boat ramp, ad then a steep hill to get to the top of the site. And then there is this enormous cairn at the center. In the late 1970s-early 1980s, archaeologists uncovered the front half of the cairn (basically cleared away the incredible vegetation that had grown on top of it and reconstituted the entrance), and that's what you're seeing on the right. It's an enormous pile of stones, that mound you're seeing there.

And inside the one entrance of this enormous mound of stones, a passageway stretching 14 meters (45 feet!) - the longest such cairn alley that has ever been discovered - extends inside, ending in a slightly enlarged chamber at the end. Best tomb ever for the most astounding chieftain ever? Problem is, no neolithic human remains have ever been discovered (although some monks had themselves buried there in the 17th century - geez!). Symbolic tomb? Or (most popular thesis now, and Oliver's guess, too, it turns out) cult site, temple, "lieu de receuillement" (site of gathering).

The great mystery of Gavrinis is matched by its great beauty. For the 7' tall stones that line the passageway, with the exception of one made of quartz instead of granite like the rest, are all completely carved. Incredible! Photography is not allowed inside, but it would be pointless anyway (it's quite dark!) - the images from this page are excellent, though, and the Ministry of Culture has put together an amazing page (click on "Gavrinis," then "decoration"), filled with excellent photographs.

Good (big, crisp) images of Gavrinis are rather well guarded - this is the best that I could find from the internet (I bought a book, too, but haven't shot any photos out of it yet). No matter, you get a hint of the incredible beauty and movement here, yes? The stone decoration on the left is the most famous one (it's on my t-shirt, inexplicably associated with "the divine feminine" (I shudder to think of that associated with me in any way, but there you have it, I loved the pattern) and is starting to become the icon of Gavrinis. There is much more going on here visually than I had ever been led to believe about neolithic stones. There is definitely a visual field (a bottom, middle and top of the image) on some of these. There are recognizable shapes (shapes that look like axe-heads, arrows, bows, wheat, snakes, rivers) - we don't know what the shapes are (let alone mean), but they are repeated and recognizable. And to further the profound mystery of it all, one of the stone slabs from the top of the passageway was part of a stone that is now at Locmariquer, a somewhat nearby megalithic site (we could have gone yesterday, but my it was already so late by the time we'd finished at Kerzehro... next time). So this is stunning to realize that the stones were re-used: was it some kind of efficiency or convenience, or a conquest of whoever had put up the stone when it was still whole? The discovery of this reused was made in 1984, and the field has been abuzz with it ever since.

No matter what we think (and there's no doubt we will continue to do so: there were boats coming and going from the island all day, and there are thousands of visitors a year - in fact, there's talk of talking the site at Gavrinis within the coming years because of the wear and tear that so many visitors will no doubt cause - go soon, everyone!), the cairn at Gavrinis still sits poised between sea and land and sky, embracing its writhing carved forms, holding open a passageway for the winter solstice sun to project a ray directly unto the back wall of the chamber. Some say the decorations are too fine, too fantastic for just a tomb (plus, no bones); others say this surely was a temple or a worship site. Whatever its function, it drew people to it and held them there. We had a hard time leaving, though the promise of a boat ride was nice.

By the time we got home, and after what we'd seen, making dinner somehow didn't make sense (this never happens to me), and the kids suggested going to "our favorite place." We loved the sound of that, so off we went to the Guethennoc (the first restaurant we ever ate at in Josselin back in late, late December) where Oliver enjoyed his new favorite food: snails. No, really! Down to the garlic butter and everything. His sisters are appalled.

I went with the all-time classic "moules et frites" (all that time spent near the sea!) and we enjoyed a long, late dinner. The necklace I'm wearing is one my mom and I discovered in La Gacilly - and yes, that is a spoon that holds it all together! About halfway through the meal Oliver started reciting lines from Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail - it was an entertaining evening!

And look at where Mac put our new Asterix plates!

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