Exciting find: In the southwest of France, archaeologists have discovered a housing estate from the early megalithic culture for the first time. For the first time, it provides information on how the builders of the monumental stone circles and megalithic tombs lived 6,400 years ago. The megalithic village was protected by a wooden palisade double moat and contained at least three large rectangular dwellings. While the monuments to their gods and dead were made of stone, people built their own dwellings of wood, earth, and wattle and daub.
Whether stone circles like in Stonehenge , menhir complexes like in Spain and France or passage graves for the dead: In the period 6,500 to 4,500 years ago the people of the megalithic culture created monumental structures. More than 35,000 such megalithic monuments are known to date, most of which are located in coastal areas of western and northern Europe. Some archaeologists therefore suspect that this culture spread across Europe with Stone Age seafarers .
But as numerous as the finds of megalithic structures are, knowledge about their builders is sparse. So far, only a few remains of the settlements in which the builders of the stone monuments once lived, dating from the late period of the megalithic culture, have been found. Because often only the enclosures in the form of earthen walls or ditches have been preserved, it is also sometimes disputed whether these are really housing estates.
“For more than a century, archaeologists have tried unsuccessfully to find settlements that date from the time of the early megalithic constructions,” explain Vincent Ard of the French research organization CNRS in Toulouse and his colleagues. In 2011, however, they uncovered aerial photographs showing striking underground structures at Le Peu in south-west France. More detailed investigations in the period from 2014 to 2021 have now brought exciting discoveries to light.
A fortified village within sight of a burial ground
Excavations and geomagnetic analysis have revealed a fortified settlement at Le Peu that is more than 6,400 years old, coinciding with some of the earliest megalithic structures. The Stone Age village lay at the western end of a slightly elevated site bordered by a small river, just 2.5 kilometers from a known cluster of several large megalithic tombs. From the hill, the residents of the settlement could even have seen these tombs, as the archaeologists explain.
The Stone Age village was surrounded by a long double ditch, the inner depression of which was additionally protected with a wooden palisade. Evidence of this is provided by numerous post holes with remains of wood and charcoal, as the archaeologists report. The entrance to the village was provided by so-called crab-claw passages – openings in the fortifications delimited by a curved ditch and a palisade, as are also known from later megalithic settlements.
Wooden bastions and at least three residences
What is unique so far, however, is a structure that Ard and his colleagues discovered at two points in the double ditch: there the fortification arched outwards in a horseshoe shape and once comprised a structure about seven by five meters in size that bridged the outer ditch and apparently protected an entrance. “You could describe this as a bastion, analogously to later examples,” say the archaeologists. In her opinion, these structures testify to the fact that the time of the early megalithic culture was obviously not necessarily peaceful.
The archaeologists also discovered a rarity inside the settlement enclosure. They found the remains of at least three rectangular buildings measuring 13 by 9 meters. All three were oriented roughly east-west and built of wooden beams. Remnants of post holes reveal that the long walls and roof were stabilized by thick oak beams. On the eastern side, on the other hand, there was only a central wooden beam.
Traces of smaller beams were also visible inside one of the buildings, indicating a raised platform. “They could once have supported a sleeping place or a kitchen,” according to Ard and his colleagues.
Wood for the living and stone for the dead
“These evidence of at least three buildings represent the oldest rectangular houses in all of west-central France,” Ard and his team report. Nowhere else in this region has anything similar been found. “The discovery of Le Peu and the excavations give us a first picture of what the settlements of the megalithic builders once looked like.”
On the one hand, this explains why no more settlements from the time of the early megalithic culture have been preserved and discovered. On the other hand, this also demonstrates that people at that time developed two very different forms of architecture – one for the dead and one for the living. “For their buildings, therefore, wood and earth were the preferred building materials, while stone dominated the world of their dead,” say the archaeologists. (Antiquity, 2023; doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.169 )