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Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport


Nearly five thousand years ago, in Neolithic times, half way up the slopes of the vale running the length of a white water stream bubbling with little whirlpools, a “sloping rock” had begun to grate and grind for several days now. A wall of the megalithic dolmen (Fig. 1) in which the clan buried their dead was in danger of complete collapse. The imperceptible movement throughout the course of the seasons had made the capstone slip askew, and it threatened to ruin the clan’s ancestral heritage forever.

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Philippe Simon in 1964 [Credit: Author Provided]
The enormous slab of stone that formed the roof of the monument had crushed the less resistant rock hollowed out beneath it and caused the great, upright support stones that made up the chamber walls to dislocate. Unable to explain this mischance, the family chiefs were resigned to having to seal up the gaping hole. Close ones spoke of evil spirits, others more in the know spoke of fatality, the burial chamber having been built close to a similar cavity of old which had weakened the wall separating the two. Were the latest rains the cause of this misfortunate? Or was it the original, previous placing of the massive roof stones?

The effort to repair the dolmen got underway, and in the darkness of the corridor within the monument dug into the hillside rock, two men were busy clearing the way by pushing the precious remains of their ancestors towards the apse at the end of the chamber. They observed several skulls and took care to gather them together with those of their smaller fellows at the centre of the layer of bones. A shaft of light filtered through the orifice that had been freshly created by the shifting of the mother rock. Here, under the rock, corbelled slabs had been laid (Fig. 2) by their great grandparents with the aim of preventing the chalk walls from crumbling. These same forefathers had then carefully covered the bones with a thick layer of powdery earth made from fossiliferous rock, by placing the smallest slabs at a slant to mark the place where the bodies lay. Later, to protect the place, the area was sealed off by a large fire of twigs and grass.

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Fig. 1: Reproduction of the monument in its supposed original form [Credit: Author Provided]
Under the orders of their chief, the members of the clan organised themselves and decided to construct a platform of slabs where a row of stakes destined to support the capstone and prevent it from slipping again was to be established. Beforehand, several of the stronger men worked to bring down two unstable stones . The fragments of one of them were gathered together as the chief demanded to protect the bones scattered between the small slabs of stone. They had been covered over and left only to the memory of the very last visit from the elders. Since that time, the bones had taken on a brown colour, tinted by the natural humidity of the ground caused by the nearby presence of a thin layer of green marlstone; the builders of the tomb had not overlooked this point, covering it with paving. As such, the precious relics continued to be covered with a skin of calcite, symbolically protected by several transverse arrowheads – one of them wedged in the fold of the bones of an ancestor’s forearm.

Gathering together once again to speak, the men of the clan agreed to share out the tasks after harvesting the einkorn wheat from their fields. They were robust men, skilled in tree felling and used their wood craft for their dwellings and village palisades to guard the village against the forest wolves. Indeed, the family chiefs bartered long axes made of polished stone, extracted from the wells of white chalk in the neighbouring valleys, against produce from the land or animals the men raised. These beautiful axes, held by a leather strap, often chipped or broke while being used to cut down the trees. They had often to be replaced during the course of the seasons, shortened or even re-sharpened on the nearby sandstone grooves.

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Fig. 2: Small, corbelled slabs on the apse stone [Credit: Author Provided]
The men were going to have to find a large quantity of stone to erect a sound foundation of small slabs. Consequently, they mined it from the hillside slope, the men bringing back hundreds of flat slabs they extracted using deer-antler pickaxes, flint inserted into a sheath of the same antler, or even stakes whose tips had been hardened by fire. These stones would be used to erect a platform five slabs thick, supplemented by those of the now unnecessary dividing walls between the orthostates. Buttresses were built to prevent the apse ceiling from caving in again. Another group of tree-fellers gathered in the forest to cut down a number of tall, hard-wood trees to reinforce the collapsed wall.

Restoration Work

They were now ready to return to the tomb in front of which they had gathered, over several days, the materials ready to start to work. They immediately rolled away the stone plug, similar to that of a neighbouring burial chamber , which sealed the access. This they did with the help of a stake inserted into the sculpted handle. They advanced carefully towards the layer of bones by moving them aside to create a narrow passageway along the great stone slabs standing against the walls. Crouching to avoid hitting their heads against the ceiling of the apse, they first placed the tree trunks of differing length against each other in a row – no less than thirty – well wedged-in at the base along the damaged wall. They then formed a human chain to hand each other the heavy flat stones they had brought or dismantled and placed them, for the moment, beside the tree trunks (Fig. 3).

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Fig. 3 – Proposed shoring up of the capstone roof [Credit: Author Provided]
The chief then ordered them to be laid at the chosen spot above the two fallen orthostates, and the men set to work building the foundation to almost knee-height. Finally, when a hundred or so slabs had been laid, they were cemented together with a mix of wet earth and straw that had been trampled by foot outside the tomb and transported in wicker baskets. Once the low wall built, the men carefully retraced their steps and closed the ancient tomb.

The shoring up the rock could begin. The men returned to the site several days later transporting tree trunks as tall a man that they cut into varying dimensions according to the inclination of the capstone rock. Once again, two men carried out the difficult work of installing the two rows of props and corner struts that had been prepared in advance. They used wood for the braces, firmly wedged in place using a sledgehammer. Once finished, the men left the vault and were cheered as they came out into the light by the rest of the tribe, the ossuary now safely removed from the danger of collapse.

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Fig. 4 – Ritual fire of twigs on the remains at the foot of the ossuary apse [Credit: Author Provided]
The last task was to fill in the destroyed partition wall with the large stones already lying in the tomb and which had held up the two great capstones having previously caved in. The patriarch ordered the apse to be sealed, but prior to this ritual, he organised a feast for the village to which he invited the members of the clan’s families. Several animals – sheep and goats – were sacrificed to honour the memory of their ancestors and calm the spirits after the disturbance that had occurred by the recent work. The clan’s dogs wasted no time in fighting for the left overs behind the huts and the village children played, fought and squabbled. The vigil proceeded joyfully with dancing, squeals and shouts to the rhythm of clapping hands and stamping feet. The celebration was marked by the trances of the men and women to the sound of a tambourine, whistles made of bone or bulrushes, the whole peppered with the coughs of the youngest due to the cold which had fallen upon the valley in this wintery season. During a rest between two dances, the chief spoke in a deep and resonant voice of the lives and achievements of the ancestors who lay under the thick layer of earth in the monument.

An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Fig. 5 – Collapsed rock on shattered or subsided orthostates [Credit: Author Provided]
The next day, a mound of twigs and branches, together with sheaves of dried grass from the fields, was laid at the edge of the ossuary. The oldest members of the tribe carried them, laying them carefully down on the layer of chalk covering the remains, then setting them alight  using a stick and length of cord worked on a small plank of wood. The blaze gave off a cloud of acrid smoke that filled the vault and seeped in curls through the top of the arched roof (Fig. 4).

A few years later, after the death of a member of the clan who had been buried against the built up pile of rock, the capstone dislocated once again from its position causing the props to collapse. The difficult task of repairing the destroyed work had to be taken up again. The capstone had caved in, demolishing the monument wall and tilting another slab against the opposite wall (Fig.5). This time, very heavy damage was caused.  

Access to the apse having become more difficult, the rock wall was strengthened by slabs and other props of varying lengths, the smallest of which were placed at the bottom of the rock. The men that had volunteered to carry out this task judged it necessary to secure the corridor wall and lengthen the foundations by a few feet. Now of no use in the corridor, the wooden logs were cleared away. The enormous capstone that no longer covered this new extension to the tomb was replaced by several heavy slabs of stone. The workers were obliged to hoist a large block onto the pile to prevent the cover of the apse from continuing its slow dislocation from the bank of natural rock.  

A time for remembrance
   
During the centuries that followed, the people of prehistoric times worked on the building of another side access to the tomb in order to place more bodies there. Several hundred moons continued to rise above the burial chamber, when a visitor from the Bronze Age managed to slip through a narrow hole under the subsided vault. He placed an offering there – an urn sparkling with the gold reflections of mica – that he covered with small slabs in order to fill in, as much as possible, the breach formed by the last collapse. Since that time, during proto-history and the first century after Jesus Christ, almost one hundred and forty generations had passed. In that time, debris from pottery was left scattered on the top of the layers of corridor ballast.

In modern times, a group of young archaeologists came to the site armed with trowels and brushes, and clambered over the vestiges to re-erect the large and beautiful slabs, each of which had once borne the name of an ancient chief. These standing slabs had until then served both as guardians and protectors of the sacred place. Then after some weeks, having finished their work and taken away samples of bones to study and date, the young archaeologists decided to bury the capstones and the stone vestiges of the Ferme Duport monument to protect them. In doing so, the villagers of the vale of Guiry-en-Vexin would continue to speak about the twists and turns of the burial chamber’s long and eventful history. 

Note

Monument excavated from 1965 to 1968 with the participation of the members of the CRAFV (Centre de Recherches Archéologiques du Vexin Français – Archaeological Research Centre of the Vexin Français) under the supervision of André Högström.

Bibliography

Högström,Simon, 1965: HÖGSTRÖM (A.), SIMON (Ph.) -  L’ossuaire chalcolithique de la ferme Duport à Guiry-en-Vexin (Val d’Oise) in Bulletin Archéologique du Vexin Français, n° 1, pp. 58-63.

Högström, Simon, Fuzellier 1995: HÖGSTRÖM (A.), SIMON (Ph.), FUZELLIER (D.) - L’Allée couverte de « La Ferme Duport », Guiry-en-Vexin (Val-d’Oise) ; Cahier archéologique - n°9, 57 pages.

Pariat 2011: PARIAT (J.-G.) - Guiry-en-Vexin, la « Ferme Duport » (Val-d’Oise), une allée sépulcrale fondée au Néolithique récent in Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 108, 2, pp. 247-262.

Simon 2016: SIMON (Ph.) - Nouvelles données stratigraphiques sur l’ossuaire de la ferme Duport à Guiry-en-Vexin (Val d’Oise) in Bulletin Archéologique du Vexin Français, n°43 (à paraître).

Excavation documents
                                                                                                                                                                            
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Archaeologists opening access to the chamber, 3rd July, 1965 [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
The ossuary site under excavation [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Cross-section of the ossuary (1964) [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Lower layer skeletal remains (2017) [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Initial discovery of remains after the opening of the apse. Extracts from the excavation log 
by André Högström [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Lower layer skeletal remains 2017 [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
Smooth-seam urn [Credit: Author Provided]
An ossuary saved from ruin in prehistoric times at Guiry-en-Vexin: Reverie on the megalithic monument at the la ferme Duport
The Ferme Duport sister burial chamber in the Bois Couturier, Guiry-en-Vexin [Credit: Author Provided]

Reprinted by The Archaeology News Network with the kind permission of the author.

Author: Philippe Simon | Translated from French by Tom Gamble [March 01, 2017]
TANN

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