Scholars, archaeologists, and now the general public have been fascinated for almost 150 years by these standing stones—megalths—also known as "statues-menhir". The word "menhir" comes from the Middle Breton, a Celtic language where "men" means stone and "hir", means long, so a long stone.
Today, these Rouergue sculptures—Rouergue is the former name of Aveyron. Rouergue was considered a region and a little larger in size than the actual Aveyron—form one of the largest groups in Europe but mostly are the first monumental statues known in these south west regions of Europe.
A few fundamental questions remain unanswered though.
What are these statues representing? What do these enigmatic sculptures tell us about these communities? These questions have been haunting experts since the initial research made at the turn of the 19th century by Abbot Hermet, the so-called inventor of these standing stones.
Definition of a "Statue-menhir"
A "statue-menhir" is a sculpture stuck in the ground whose overall shape is reminiscent of a "menhir".
True Pieces of Art
At first, the 19th century's archaeologists were puzzled as they were so used to realism. These sculptures were so often described as coarse, rudimentary or even schematic in some ways. Nowadays no one can stay insensitive to these representations, moreover to their singularity. Highly evocative, representing a character in broad strokes, giving it sometimes some expression, one can say they immediately retain attention as their simple but rhythmic shapes, jerky too, do play around with light. The geometry of their straight lines and harmonious curves are so impressive.
The depicted characters are shown in full with straight legs, a belt to mark around the waists. Arms are folded on the chest extending in the back, with shoulder blades shaped butt. Facial features are simplified to the eyes and nose, as well as tattoos—parallel lines on the cheeks—rarely the mouth is drawn. Sometimes bodies wear a large heavy coat with parallel folds. "Statues-menhirs" bear different attributes according to their depicted sex. Women have breasts in the form of buttons, neck collars with several rows and hair pulled back. Men carry weapons— bow, arrow, ax—and a belt across the chest kept back by a strap joined to the belt. A triangular artifact with a ring is suspended. This hard to identify utensil is commonly called object or dagger-object by archaeologists.
From Stone to Man
The main issue when it comes to interpret the meaning of these "statues-menhir" is that these monuments are—so far—discovered out of context. As a matter of fact they are not discovered in close relationship to any archaeological site.
Nonetheless scientific arguments are all pointing to a pivotal period dating them between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age—also known as Chalcolithic. Indeed this period is defined as the early stage of the copper metallurgy—precisely between 3,500 and 2,300 BC, where daggers, axes, bows, arrows and other ornamental artifacts where produced similar to the ones present on "statues-menhir" albeit found on archaeological sites dating from the same period. Flint and/or copper daggers were produced in large numbers at these times. Standing stones like the "statues-menhir" are part of the same trend; the erection of stone monuments, megaliths of large sizes. Among these are the dolmens—spectacular tombs whose remains can still be seen along the Aveyron countryside.
(To note, Aveyron is the French "département" counting the most dolmens including ahead of any other "département" of the Celtic Brittany region where the word "menhir" come from. According to a recent estimate, Aveyron alone would count more than 1000 on its territory!)
The Middle Neolithic megaliths appeared on the Atlantic coast, essentially expanding during the new and the end of the Neolithic (Chalcolithic).
Excavations of these Aveyron dolmens reveal a large amount of ornaments, arrowheads as well as many daggers.
One can find these standing stones at the crossroads of several areas, thus possible different cultural influences. However the archaeological remains found in Aveyron seem to be only concurrent with the group called "Treilles". This Chalcolithic group has been extensively documented as studied on the "Grands Causses", considered significant as a quite early activity in the use of copper metallurgy. An abundance of archaeological sites as well as their associated artifacts seem to confirm a period of rapid population growth of livestock farmers.
The Manufacturing of the "Statues-menhir"
Close-by rocky deposits were used as materials. In some cases, the blocks were hauled over several kilometres. Three kilometres for the "Pierre Plantée" —4.5 metres high and 9 tonnes— five kilometres for the "Dame de Saint-Sernin", and close to fifteen kilometres for the statue of "Maurels".
Obviously moving large stones required prior work to be done in the nearby forests as well as organization skills such as clearing and/or use of the main roads, large enough to accommodate the move, and use of specific traction devices such as sleds and corduroy roads. Erection of these monuments must have had a large number of prehistoric communities involved. However it seems inconsistent—and more questions are arising. Why would small groups of people partner up to erect these "statues-menhir" in such a dense forest? What would have been the purpose(s) and/or goal(s)?
Once the boulder extracted or simply picked up, next work involved preparing its surface. Only one technique was used. Roughening with a non-metallic hammer and a roller of quartz or granite would have done the work. Then a coarse polishing using water and sand could have taken place, thus equalizing the anterior face and the two sides.
Next step might have varied according to the used materials. Two different techniques could have been used; either bas-relief sculpting or relief engraved, such as embossed sculpting.
As sandstone is quite soft statues are usually bas-relief carved. Sculptors would have had to remove some material in order to display a form. Granite—more rarely slate—standing stones were more difficult to sculpt out of. Faces were then carved hollow.
Once the basic shape given, sculptors would make changes like giving a sex to the statue itself. This would be done hollow, even though the "statue-menhir" was already carved. At the same time the opposite sex would be carved too. However no sex details were given, only a rough hammering—quite symbolic but still clearly identifiable as of today.
More of These Enigmatic Sculptures Have Been Discovered
During the past fifteen years unique and unusual representations have been discovered. Back in 1912, only thirty one "statues-menhir" were to be known, then up to nearly fifty in the 1970s, whereas nowadays an ensemble of one hundred and forty five prehistoric monuments has been unearthed.
In recent decades a large number of archaeological objects—tools, ceramics—have been unearthed in the neighbourhood of known "statues-menhir". It indicates a high probability of a strong human presence and habitat. Usually sculptures are to be found where slopes are less marked, where there is potential for agriculture and/or livestock and easy traffic to nearby areas. "Statues-menhir" are not linked to transients searching for game or other resources but to settled farmers, living in that region 5000 years ago.
A New Look
The actual meaning as well as the role of these "statues-menhir" is yet to be fully understood. Several generations of scholars have expressed varying assumptions such as divine representations or protective figures for hunters, however there is no definite answer yet.
As of today research is moving towards the social organization of these communities. As scholars know of the late Neolithic—in western Europe anyway—a fierce competition existed between these communities. Hence, some charismatic figures might have emerged among these groups. As leaders are necessary to any human group, "statues-menhir" could represent these dignitaries, where mythical ancestors would be represented as well, thus becoming symbols of a genealogy, an anchor to the local populations' collective memory.
The "statues-menhir" might be evoking heroes, dignitaries. either or. No matter what, they do represent beings holding power. Moreover, the importance or the prestige attached to these characters caused human groups to partner up and search for large boulders sometimes a few kilometres away, sculpting them and erecting these monuments. Indeed this is the first time Man chooses the stone as a large-scale representation of himself, at a size close to human one though. However, a colossal representation was found— 4.5 metres high—the "Pierre Plantée" on the high foothills of Lacaune nearby.
The "Statues-Menhir", a European Phenomenon
The "statues-menhir" found in "Rouergue" belong to a larger format—a so-called anthropomorphic representations class. Such stones all across Europe were erected between the mid-4th and the end of the 3rd millennium BC, and found scattered throughout the northern fringes of the Mediterranean Sea.
The south of France has a high concentration of human figures carved during the late Neolithic period—3rd millennium BC—found mainly in "Rouergue", the "Languedoc" region, and "Provence" region but other parts of Europe as well such as Switzerland, Italy, and the northern side of the Black Sea.
Further east, a small number of monuments has been unearthed in Bulgaria and Greece. As well an important set of monuments located on the eastern edge of Europe—between the Danube delta and the lower Don—has been found, as well as in Crimea too.
The Regional Land of The "Statues-Menhir"
The map shown here covers a mountainous rugged terrain, the actual south of the "département" of "Aveyron", as well as the "département Tarn", and part of the "département Hérault".
In this region of contrasted climate, current forests— beech, oak—although transformed by Man, one can imagine the landscape at the times when "statues-menhir" were erected. It is likely forests covered most areas and residential areas. Activities were mostly around crop and pasture. Many boulders of all sizes were available, thus making possible the Megalithic expansion as well as the mining of resistant rocks for tools. In this environment many standing stones and "menhirs" were discovered over the past century or so, always close to ancient communication routes, near checkpoints, ridge lines, fords. passes and valleys. Several deposits of copper ore are known to be sitting in the vicinity of these areas of which only one, "Bouco Payrol"—see the black and pink star on the map—delivered traces of a prehistoric mine exploitation.