“On a midsummer night, on a night that was eerie with stars,Sara Teasdale
In a wood too deep for a single star to look through,
You led down a path whose turnings you knew in the darkness,
But the scent of the dew-dripping cedars was all that I knew.”
I had the very unique privilege of spending midsummer at a neolithic necropolis known as the Tumulus of Bougon, in the Deux-Sèvres region of France. This is in fact one of the oldest such sites in the world. The site is in a place called “Les Chirons”, in a loop of the Bougon River, built from local stone, quarried in the area. Set over 2 hectares the site contains five tumuli with eight sepulchral chambers. It took me the bones of a whole day to pay homage to them all. They date among the oldest on the Atlantic Coast to 4,700 BCE, the very beginning of the neolithic period. ‘Chirons’ the placename is a French word for piles of stones. Some have enormous dimensions, and are dotted around France. It is thought they were formed in ancient times as funerary monuments.
I was struck by the similarity with Newgrange, Ireland, a whole thousand years younger, ancient dwelling place of An Dagda, which is also built on a bend in a river, this time the River Boyne, clearly these master builders had a logic to their construction. Do I understand their logic? No! I believe they had a reason to build them in the manner in which they did, and I think they have astrological alignments, at least that would make sense to me, but I am not an archaeologist. Each tumulus hides a burial chamber served by a corridor. Neolithic people laid their dead on their sides, in the foetal position, without burying them. The bodies were found lying on the ground surrounded by offerings. Scientific and historical research continues today on the megalithic site. It is believed that this necropolis was used as a burial site for more than a thousand years. The druid in me sought permission to enter these tombs and once inside I simply sang, I felt for the most part a healing calm.
One of the interesting features of this site is that all the barrows are different from one another, and showcase a unique architectural style. Tumulus A is a stepped mound with a large rectangular chamber at its centre. During the excavation of this tumulus, a total of 220 skeletons, as well as grave goods, were unearthed. It is also notable for its massive 90 tonne megalith as its capstone. Tumulus B has a total of four chambers in it and also contained human burials. Tumulus C is a one of the more complex mounds at the site, as it was erected in several phases. Built over two earlier structures, a smaller circular mound, and a rectangular platform next to it.
Tumulus E according to archaeologists was constructed around the beginning of the 5th millennium BC. This barrow has two inner chambers and evidence of human burial was discovered during the excavations. Tumulus F is the longest of the five tumuli. At each end of this barrow is a chamber, built at different points of time during the 4th millennium BC. One is covered by a 32-tonne megalith. In between these chambers is a series of structures that were constructed to stabilise the tumulus. Other barrows at the site contain multiple chambers also. A tumulus can be found close to the Grianán of Aileach in County Donegal, Ireland. It has been suggested by historians such as George Petrie, who surveyed the site in the early 19th century, that the tumulus may predate the ringfort of Aileach by many centuries possibly to the neolithic age. Surrounding stones were laid horizontally, and converged towards the centre. the mound had been excavated in Petrie’s time, but nothing explaining its meaning was discovered. It was subsequently destroyed, but its former position is marked by a heap of broken stones. Similar mounds can be found at The Hill of Tara and there are several prominent tumuli at Brú na Bóinne in County Meath.
The word tumulus is Latin for ‘mound’ or ‘small hill’, which is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to bulge, swell’ also found in tomb, tumour, tumescent, thumb, thigh, and thousand. A tumulus (plural tumuli) is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows and cairns. Tumuli are often categorised according to their external apparent shape. In this respect, a long barrow is a long tumulus, usually constructed on top of several burials, such as passage graves. I didn’t see anything that I could identify as rock art, though there were plenty of what looked like cup marks on some of the orthostats. It is impossible for me to allocate a meaning to these just to note that they were interesting. The only other feature I noticed is that all of the passages into the tombs seemed to face the same direction, east – ish. Aside from this amateur observation, I saw nothing that could suggest an astrological alignment.
I spent a lovely midsummer there, wandering aimlessly, not following a guidebook, just my nose really. The site is covered in ancient and tall oaks, and this was an extra special dimension to my day. One entrance to a passage where children’s remains were found was clearly guarded by two oaks. I came in peace and sang in the chambers, songs in Gaelic that came to me it was so very special. I felt sure I wasn’t the first druid to visit this place and hopefully I won’t be the last. These sites are important for Irish archaeology because they show the extensive use of drystone walls round the edges of the cairns.