There’s no shortage of art and history to explore in France, and there’s definitely more to see than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. What fewer people know is that it is also home to some of the oldest buildings known to mankind.
The last age of the Stone Age was an interesting development for mankind. The change to a Neolithic culture was gradual and is the foundation of many modern cultural practices. Life was semi-nomadic, with beginning traces of mankind setting up camps. Human remains from this time were often found embedded with arrowheads and stone production improved. This all led to some interesting times for mankind, and thanks to centuries of discovery and restoration, we can have a little taste of and experience the lives, and more notably deaths, of our prehistoric ancestors.
If you’re travelling around France, visiting some of the oldest buildings known to mankind is a must. Two of these are the Barnenez and the Bougon Tumulus.
Hidden in the picturesque town of Plouezoc’h, is one of the oldest man-made structures in the world. Located on a hill with a tremendous view overlooking the Bay of Morlaix, is the Cairn of Barnenez. The mound dates back to about 4800 BC when the first phase was constructed. This was during the Neolithic period with the first emergence of stone, livestock farming and agriculture.
The use of flat stones, either as traditional dolmens or in a particular arrangement, give the structure its rounded mound-like appearance.
The two cairns that comprise the monument weighs up to 14 000 tons and was built using almost 7000 cubic meters of stone. It is 72m long, up to 25 m wide and 9m tall. 11 chambers each have separate passages as entrances.
Only in 1850 was it identified as a tumulus. In 1955 because of it use as a quarry, some of the chambers were exposed, and in turn, so was its value as an archaeological site. After the excavation work done between 1955 and 1968, the mound was restored ton reflect much of its original qualities.
The Barnenez Mound is a sanctuary of ancient artefacts, art and history. The chambers and passageways are adorned with engraved symbols. These images of snakes and U-shaped signs and wavy lines resemble similar illustrations etched in other monuments, constituting a phenomenon known as Megalithic art.
Neolithic artefacts including pottery and weaponry have been recovered from the cairn. Remarkably, artefacts from a later age, the Chalcolithic period, were found too.
There is very limited access to the interior of the cairn, which means the public don’t have access to the engravings and many artefacts. The public are encouraged to pass the rough an opening of a dolmen, which is a metre 1m high. You’ll have to keep your head low to avoid hitting the stone above. There are also guided tours, which provide some interesting insight into its history and restoration.
If you’re hesitant because the visit should take only about an hour, you need not be. Age is not the only feature of the Barnenez Tumulus that makes it worth the visit. The structure has been described as resembling a hammerhead shark, with its steep façade. The striking beauty of the structure and its surroundings make a great place to picnic and just explore.
Discovered by archaeologists in 1840, the six Neolithic barrows that comprise the Bougon Tumulus actually dates back to 4700 BC and is the oldest in Europe. Not only can you explore a prehistoric structure but also the beautiful landscapes and views, as the site is located in a loop of the river Bougon.
Excavations on the site only resumed in the 1960s and the tumuli are a well-preserved example of ancient funerary architecture and provides us with great insights into how our ancestors deposited their dead and what accompanied them.
The Bougon necropolis comprises monumental graves made of stone and earth. Dolmens of earth made with stone slabs, weighing about 90 tons cover the mounds.
Inside the tumulus, you’ll have access to information about the history of the site, the evolution of man, migratory patterns, early tools and shelters. While the reading material is mostly in French, audio is available which may be helpful.
Each tumulus is a different size. Supported by monolithic pillars, which also divide the space, the first tumulus is about 40m in diameter. The burial chamber was divided into three layers where about 200 skeletons were discovered. Along with the bones, many ancient artefacts and objects were recovered as well. These included pottery beads, seashells, tools and teeth.
The second tumulus contained skull caps in two rows. An interesting Neolithic find – two chests stone and potsherds- was discovered near the mound.
Four skeletons were found in a section of the third tumulus. While there’s no burial chamber, there are still several burials.
The fourth tumulus is a fascinating discovery. It divides the necropolis into two sections, with the first three on the one side the remaining two on the other.
The fifth mound is trapezoidal, has two passage graves, while the last tumulus is the largest in the necropolis, and has three sections.
The Tumulus of Bougon Museum
A 16-acre park comprising a beautiful botanical garden, the perfect addition to your prehistorical adventure, separates the necropolis from the museum. Built on a former Cistercian Priory, the museum creates a great space, celebrating the Neolithic period in which the mounds were constructed. It’s particularly fascinating for those with a keen interest in history as it provides a wealth of information on mankind from this period, looking at the emergence of farming communities to new technologies and materials as well as crafts, such as pottery and weaving.
The adventure is never quite done, as there is a discovery trail with recreated dwellings and even a fun maze for the kids. It’s great for a family trip as there is audio that will keep the little ones entertained. The visit is affordable and there’s a café available on site.
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