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Hiding the dead in caves and sacralizing them in dolmens

Multiple stages of funerals in the Late Chalcolithic cultures of Southern France
Éric Crubézy
p. 21-38
Traduction(s) :
Des grottes pour cacher les morts et des dolmens pour les sacraliser [fr]

Résumés

La cavité des Truels II sur le Larzac, dans le sud de la France, qui s’intègre dans un site « mégalithique » fait de terrasses organisées, a livré quatre phases d’occupations sépulcrales entre 3500 et 2000 cal. BC. Si les deux premières sont peu documentées, la troisième correspond à un petit sanctuaire ou à un culte des reliques. La quatrième correspond à un lieu de dépôt primaire des corps (interprétée comme maison des morts) qui étaient ensuite déposés dans les dolmens comme le démontre l’étude des dents et des os des extrémités. Les comparaisons avec d’autres sites du sud de la France et de la vallée du Rhône (Dolmen MXI Petit-Chasseur) suggèrent que cette dernière pratique a été plus pratiquée que ce que l’on pensait jusqu’à présent. Les raisons historiographiques en sont discutées tout comme la signification de ces rites.

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Notes de la rédaction

English version written by the authors, revised and corrected by K. Mazurié de Keroualin (www.linarkeo.fr).
Reçu / Received 01-04-2021 ; Version révisée reçue / Received in revised form 30-09-2021 ; Accepté / Accepted 04-10-2021 ; En ligne / Online 07-12-2021

Texte intégral

We want to thank Jean Guilaine, Yaramila Tchérémissinoff and Richard Donat for fruitful discussions, Patrice Gérard for illustrations and Nicolas Senegas for the artistic rendering of the site.

Introduction

1In 2004 the author co-directed a publication entitled “Pratiques et espaces funéraires: Les Grands Causses au Chalcolithique”. This study examined the cultural identity of Les Grands Causses, a region in Southern France, during the Late Neolithic and the Chalcolithic period, and focused on an archaeological complex known as the “Treilles group” (Balsan & Costantini, 1972, Costantini 1984). One of the main aspects of the project concerned the excavations and anthropological studies of several burial places, i.e. individual and/or collective deposits in caves, dolmens and wooden monuments dated to this period and assigned to this archaeological culture, including the Truels II site. These burial places had been in use for more than 1,500 years. The Truels II cave is located on the foothills of the Larzac plateau in a narrow channel created by erosion over geological time scales. During the last period of its use as a burial place, the corpses of the deceased were deposited in the cave, before being potentially transferred to dolmens, located on the plateau. This conclusion is based on the comparison of the numbers of bones and teeth stemming from Truels II and dolmen 2 of Saint-Martin du Larzac, located a few hundred metres away, on the plateau (Azémar & Crubézy, 1995, 1997).

2The publication "Pratiques et espaces funéraires: Les Grands Causses au Chalcolithique" changed our understanding of several funerary sites dated to the late stage of the Chalcolithic (2300-2000 BCE). In the present study it was possible to evidence complementarity between several sites that compose a funerary landscape based on a new anthropobiological approach highlighting the importance of the counting of mono- and polyradicular teeth along with metacarpal and metatarsal bones to distinguish primary from secondary burials. Fifteen years later, the notion of “burial place” (funerary landscape) has attracted the attention of archaeologists. As shown by a consultation of specialised websites, since our publication, this notion has been widely taken up in numerous articles and books dedicated to different periods. Interestingly, prior to 2019 and the present symposium, which looked at the relationships between the different types of burial places, this notion of transferring bodies from a cave to a dolmen do not attracted attention among French archaeologists. Nineteen years after this publication, we believe that the interpretation of this site can now be incorporated into a broader scenario. In addition, since the initial publication, the study carried out by Guilaine and colleagues (Guilaine et al. 2015) of sites similar to Truels II and their bibliographical review of “skull caves”, the artistic rendering of Truels II (in this paper) fits our initial discoveries into a broader perspective. This should make it possible to reconsider the significance of many sites, in Southern France and beyond.

The location of the Truels II site

3The Grands Causses, a region hosting several large limestone plateaus, is a unique place for studying the recent prehistory of Europe. Some rural territories have been “fossilised”, many sites are still intact and excavations at burial sites have yielded well preserved bones (Crubézy et al. 1995). On the Larzac plateau, the distribution of dolmens is not random. They were discovered in areas with a combined use for agriculture, grazing and woodland, a distribution very similar to that observed for several medieval settlements in Southern France (Azémar & Crubézy 1995). The sites are preferably located on the edges of the plateaus, not very far from circular limestone depressions used for agriculture. On the northern side of the Larzac plateau, the site of Saint-Martin has yielded at least three dolmens, built very close to each other. One dolmen was excavated about thirty years ago and revealed several phases of construction, one of which can be attributed to the final phase of the Treilles group and/or the Early Bronze Age. Unfortunately, it was used as a cemetery in medieval times and no traces remained of the Neolithic occupation. The site of Saint-Martin II, a few dozen metres away, was excavated in the 1930s. The archaeologists had buried the bones, which were excavated again, studied and dated to 3850 ± 50 BP, i.e. 2468-2198 cal. BC, which is consistent with the artefacts (Azémar & Crubézy 1997).

4The site of Saint-Martin is located on the margins of the Larzac plateau. It is separated from the edge of the plateau by a limestone elevation a few dozen meters high with a flattened summit. The edges of the plateau are formed by a geological relief subject to particular erosion which provides the plateau with a ruiniform aspect with sometimes narrow passages in the form of channels, which descend from the plateau to the Dourbie river. The Truels II cave is located in one of these channels which is connected to a depression where there is a perennial spring (springs being rare on the plateau). On the other side of this depression, there is another cave, named Truels or Truels I, with an entrance resembling that of Truels II, which was excavated in the mid-20th century (Costantini 1955). From the spring, an ancient pathway joins a ford crossing the Dourbie river, which on the other bank connects with a ravine that leads to the Causse Noir, another plateau. Therefore, the Truels II site is located on a path leading down to a spring and to the Causse Noir, an important pathway for communications between human groups (fig. 1).

1. Location of the site in France, looking north from the hamlet of “Les Truels”.

1. Location of the site in France, looking north from the hamlet of “Les Truels”.

The sea of clouds covers the Dourbie valley, at the bottom the Causse Noir, the footpath towards Les Truels II is at the end of the meadow. The map illustrates the old trail that goes down from the plateau to Les Truels II and from there to the Dourbie and the Causse Noir. Photo E. Crubézy.

5The Truels II site can be divided into three spatial areas: a cave, a group of man-built limestone structures superimposed at the entrance to the cave, and a natural channel – in which the cave is located – which was transformed into a funerary landscape during the use of the cave as a burial place.

Chronology and history of the Truels II site

6The study of the stratigraphy, the artefacts, and seven radiocarbon dates (fig. 2) makes it possible to propose a reconstruction of the history of the site. It was possible to identify four phases of burial occupation, which are all assigned to the Treilles group. The site shows a burial vocation from the beginning of its occupation with terraces laid out in the channel, which were used for 1,000 to 1,500 years and which were certainly renovated several times.

2. Compilation of calibrated 14C data (cal. BC) from the Truels II site.

2. Compilation of calibrated 14C data (cal. BC) from the Truels II site.

7The cave faces due north and has constant cool temperatures. It consists of a small horizontal limestone cave, 5.50 m long and between 0.40 m and 1 m wide, with an initial height of 1.80 m at the entrance, without the sedimentary filling, (1.20 m above the sedimentary filling in situ) and 0.40 m at the rear. The cave space extends with a diverticulum filled with sediment but through which water flowed prior to the Chalcolithic occupation phase. About one meter above the rear part of the cave, a horizontal slab divides the space into two parts (fig. 3).

3. Longitudinal section of the cavity and the front of the cave.

3. Longitudinal section of the cavity and the front of the cave.

The layer corresponding to the final phase of the Treilles Group 3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 cal. BC, is in red. The platform and locking blocks related to this phase are in yellow. Section E. Crubézy and P. Gérard.

8The natural channel, at the level of the cave, had some particularities: on the opposite side of the cave wall there is a very narrow passageway leading to another channel to the east. Near the entrance to this passage there is a stone rammed into the ground naturally in geological times following its collapse from the cliff. In this area, the remains of a low wall built in two phases were uncovered during the excavation. Several fragments of pottery dated to the ancient phase of the Treilles group were found leaning against its lower part, along with fragments of human bones. The remains of a low wall were also identified on the opposite side of the channel, near the entrance to the cave. It should be noted that in the centre of the channel the soil is compressed to different levels, suggesting that the channel was shaped into platforms (a very frequent type of structure up to medieval times, and even later, in this type of ruiniform landscape). At the base of the platform, on the substratum the remains of a hearth were identified. The entrance to the cavity with a keyhole shape was closed by a slab, probably during this phase. The slab was found in a tilted position, and may have been surmounted by wooden elements. Three bones (a calcaneus and two diaphysis fragments) of differing sizes and in differing states of preservation were excavated in niches and crannies of the cave wall embedded in the sediment below the layer containing small bones.

9The hearth below the platforms of the channel was dated to 3900-3500 BCE and the two “atypical” bones discovered in the cave to 3500-2900 BCE (diaphysis) and to 3600-3350 BCE (calcaneus). It is therefore possible that the site started to be used as a burial place during the early phase of the Late Neolithic (at about 3500 BCE, early stage of the Treilles group). Geological and stratigraphic studies demonstrated that during this early phase the clearing on top of the plateau marked the beginning of its deforestation and increasing anthropic pressure over the following decades (Crubézy et al. 2007) led to the deposit of scree and sediment.

10In order to stabilize these scree slopes at the level of the Truels II cave, platforms were built as early as the early stage of the Treilles group, some using stone blocks, others using wooden pieces. The inflow of scree continued until the Modern Era and the rehabilitation of the forest at the beginning of the 20th century.

11Extending from the cave there were several superimposed anthropic limestone structures. From the earliest to the most recent the following can be identified:

121. Blocks of local origin surrounding white limestone blocks which had been brought from the top of the plateau. These local blocks may correspond to an initial, later dismantled platform (or may have been added to finish the foundations of the upper platform, see below). Between these blocks, there are traces of excavations, which had yielded some vases or fragments of vases, and scattered human remains. The human remains correspond to at least five adults and two children associated with a bead characteristic of the middle stage of the Treilles group (2900-2700 BCE). This phase has been interpreted as being the remains of a burial that was removed from the cave without care. This evacuation may have occurred prior to the establishing of the secondary burial (see below). However, traces of digging around the secondary burial cannot rule out the hypothesis of a later cleaning immediately prior to the last phase of burial (in which case the human remains were still in the cave when the secondary burial was established). The alternative hypothesis is that these remains had never been in the cave before and stem from another place. However, this hypothesis is unlikely as no archaeological material from the cave can be dated to the middle stage of the Treilles group. The calibrated radiocarbon dating does not rule out the possibility that the two atypical bones found in the cave can also be attributed to this phase; in this case the use of the site as a burial place would only be demonstrated from this phase on. This would not explain the presence of pottery fragments attributed to the early stage of the Treilles group which were found leaning against the base of the wall located in the channel.

132. White limestone blocks that were initially delimited by a wooden structure, forming a kind of cist (fig. 4). The cist protected two tibias and a skull with erosion marks (a few fragments of maxilla and mandible), arranged in a bundle and probably belonging to a single individual. In addition, 335 pottery fragments were recovered, corresponding to 34 small undecorated bowls of which only three were intact or nearly intact. One of these bowls had certainly been placed on the edge of the wooden structure from which it had fallen down. It is unlikely that all of the bowls were placed in a complete state, as some of these were originally represented only by fragments (some of the fragments described above may have belonged to this deposit). The shape of the vases fits the end of the middle stage or the beginning of the final stage of the Treilles group. The two tibias and the skull with erosion marks that suggest the presence of a secondary burial were dated to 2500-2300 BCE. A date close to 2400-2500 BCE is consistent with the typology of the potteries. In addition to the archaeological data, this typology suggests that the potteries were deposited over a quite long period of time. This dating also suggests a gap of 100 to 200 years at the transition with the following phase and moreover suggests that those who built the platform at that time could not view the secondary burial site. It should be noted here that the term “secondary burial” may not be appropriate because we are dealing with a few bones in a cist protected by white stones brought in from the plateau, on which and against which small vases or fragments were placed at times (when people went down to the spring?). This structure suggests a small sanctuary or a cult of relics rather than a secondary burial. Those who built the upper platform (above) could not view the cist because it was already covered with blocks and sediment at that time (fig. 5).

4. Artistic rendering of the secondary burial (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e.2573 to 2333 cal. BC) of the middle/final phase of the Treilles Group.

4. Artistic rendering of the secondary burial (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e.2573 to 2333 cal. BC) of the middle/final phase of the Treilles Group.

Note the 4 white stones (Elephant Skin Dolomite) originating from the top of the plateau. Reconstitution N. Sénégas.

5. Artistic rendering of the cave entrance between the middle/final phase of the Groupe des Treilles (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2573 to 2333 BC) and the final phase (3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 BC).

5. Artistic rendering of the cave entrance between the middle/final phase of the Groupe des Treilles (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2573 to 2333 BC) and the final phase (3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 BC).

The secondary burial is covered with erosion-related blocks. Reconstitution N. Sénégas.

143. A platform made of flat stones (fig. 6) was initially delimited by wooden elements (fig. 7). This upper platform was built on a foundation of white limestone blocks. Initially the cist formed by the white limestone blocks delimited by a wooden structure had a slightly different orientation from this upper platform. Between the interstices of the blocks there were some teeth, bones of the limbs and personal ornaments. Between the entrance and the horizontal slab (US 1005 in fig. 3) very little archaeological material was found: small bones of hands and feet, teeth and specific personal ornaments assigned to the final stage of the Treilles group. The bones recovered from the platform were dated to 2300-2030 BCE, a date which is consistent, according to the artefacts associated with the bones in the cave and on the platform, with the final stage of the Treilles group. The state of the Truels II site at the end of the period of use of the site is in accordance with a cleaning of the surface of the cavity. At that time there were only a few small bones and teeth left in the cave, which were moved away and pushed to the rear behind the slab that can be easily lifted and removed (Crubézy et al. 2004). There may have been several earlier cleaning phases. The small bones are mainly phalanges, some carpal and metacarpal bones and teeth (mainly monoradicular). It was concluded that these stem from corpses that were deposited in this cavity for some time and were removed from it in an advanced state of decomposition. The bone count indicates that at least 30 corpses of both sexes (DNA determination) and different ages passed through the cavity, but this number is only a minimum number and many corpses may not have left any remains. With regard to the narrowness of the cavity, it was estimated that there could never have been more than three corpses inside at once. The initial publication of this site (Crubézy et al. 2004) provides the results of a forensic study which was carried out and which demonstrated that the handling of corpses in a state of decomposition causes the hands, especially the phalanges and the thumb column, to fall off more easily and before the metatarsals (fig. 8). It could be demonstrated that there were more metacarpals in the cave than on the platform and that the opposite was true for the metatarsals, demonstrating the manipulation of these corpses, their removal from the cave and their likely manipulation by their limbs. At the end of its use as a sepulchral place, the cave and the platform erected in the extension of the cave were not altered subsequently. The question is, where were the bodies taken once they had been removed from the cave? The comparison with the teeth found in the Saint-Martin dolmen is particularly instructive. In this dolmen, which is contemporary from a cultural point of view, the bones were very badly preserved and it could be shown (Crubézy et al. 2004) not only that some skulls were missing but also that the polyradicular teeth (usually well-preserved elements) were much more numerous than the monoradicular ones. The two sites, which were very close to each other and which could be linked to one another (fig. 9), appear to be complementary. As a result the small volume of the dolmen, it was likely that previously deposited bodies were disarticulated and dislocated and the bones stored away. It is not impossible that, once in the dolmen, some bodies had their skull removed during subsequent ceremonies. This removal of skulls is a widely known phenomenon in many collective burials in the Neolithic of Europe (Crubézy & Mazière 1991, Reilly 2003, Zeeb-Lanz 2011, Alt et al. 2016, Bizot & Sauzade dir. 2015) and it has been documented at several sites on the Larzac plateau (Crubézy et al. 2004). Without being able to demonstrate that the dolmen of Saint-Martin II was the complementary site of the Truels II cave (which will require paleogenomic analyses to compare the DNA profiles from the two sites), it can be confirmed that Saint-Martin II had received corpses that had decomposed elsewhere and that the site of Truels II corresponds to the type of site where the deceased were initially deposited.

6. The upper part of the platform in front of the cave seen from the east at an early stage of its excavation.

6. The upper part of the platform in front of the cave seen from the east at an early stage of its excavation.

One notices the very clear limits to the east and south (where there has been a collapse) of the platform, initially limited by a structure made of wood. Photo E. Crubézy.

7. Artistic rendering of the site in the final phase of sepulchral occupation, final phase of the Treilles Group 3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 cal. BC.

7. Artistic rendering of the site in the final phase of sepulchral occupation, final phase of the Treilles Group 3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 cal. BC.

The limits found in the form of a "wall negative" were restituted in the form of squared logs. The platform bounded in part by a wall can be considered certain, the one further upstream is more hypothetical, but it is possible that others still existed upstream. The dolomotic cliff bordering the site to the east (the cave is to the west) is slightly concave and thus protects a narrow passage, sheltered from bad weather and rock falls, where man took shelter during the middle Bronze Age (hearths) and which during the phases of sepulchral occupation seems to have served as a very narrow passage. The cliff (east) is interrupted at the level of the cave and, between it and a dolomitic rock that follows it, there is a narrow passage that leads to another a narrow channel. It is at this location that an axe was found (symbolic entrance to the site?). Reconstitution N. Sénégas.

8. Aspect of the hand of a corpse deposited in an experimental vault (known environment) for 3 years and whose hand has been manipulated to extract it from the coffin (study on the functioning of cemeteries conducted within the framework of a Scientific Interest Group - GIS - on the functioning of cemeteries in France).

8. Aspect of the hand of a corpse deposited in an experimental vault (known environment) for 3 years and whose hand has been manipulated to extract it from the coffin (study on the functioning of cemeteries conducted within the framework of a Scientific Interest Group - GIS - on the functioning of cemeteries in France).

The column of the thumb (initially on the inside of the hand) has fallen as well as the last two phalanges of the fifth finger. We notice a beginning of dissociation of the articular spacing between the carpal bones and those of the forearm. Some carpal bones were close to falling. At the level of the feet, the whole metatarsus appears more resistant but would have fallen if the mobilization by the feet persisted. In the case of mummification or natural drying, this order of decomposition is not respected, the extremities tending to dry out and very often the lumbar vertebrae fall first (Giscard et al. 2014). Photo E. Crubézy.

9. Reconstruction of the possible itinerary for transporting the bodies between Truels II and one of the dolmens on the site of Saint-Martin du Larzac.

9. Reconstruction of the possible itinerary for transporting the bodies between Truels II and one of the dolmens on the site of Saint-Martin du Larzac.

The shortest itineraries bypass the limestone elevation a few dozen meters high with a flattened summit that separates Saint- Martin from the edge of the plateau. There is no evidence to suggest that this route was used. A longer possible itinerary (the one presented) passes through the top of the limestone elevation and joins a medieval path still marked on the ground by ruts cut into the rock. The interest of this path is that it is based on a path that is certainly very ancient. At the top of the climb from Truels II, the whole micro-region can be seen clearly and the track from west to east is parallel to the dolmens that are overlooked like all the cultivated areas. Reconstitution by P. Gérard from Google Earth.

154. After the last occupation, the site was abandoned. The tilted position of the entrance slab is certainly linked to curiosity or an attempt at looting (looking for copper beads for example, as we found one) that took place prior to the Roman period. A hearth was found against the cliff face, about ten metres away from the cave, with a dating centred on about 1500 BCE. Over time erosion of the channel carried blocks to the platform which was thus cemented. At that time visitors could only distinguish a 0.40 m large hole through which the cavity could be accessed. The cavity was accessed on at least three occasions, one was in Roman times, one was in medieval times, as evidenced by two coins from these periods, and the third occasion was during the modern period, as shown by the pieces of a metal tool found there. The passage that led down to the spring was certainly abandoned as early as the medieval period. As it was too steep, people preferred to use a channel further west to reach the spring. The channel was explored at the end of the 20th century by children of the hamlet “Les Truels” who were looking for climbing sites. The forest re-established itself, so the aerial photos do not reveal the ruiniform dolomitic rocks which were thus protected against illicit excavators.

The site in its local, regional and international context

  • 1 It should be noted that the dating of several dozen teeth may be of great interest for this site.

16From the beginning to the end of the sepulchral occupation, caves and platforms did not have a very impressive aspect. They were not merely “foxholes or cracks in rocks to hide the deceased” (Guilaine et al. 2015). It therefore remains a challenge to examine whether the site was used continuously for almost 1,500 years. There is evidence that the people who built the platform in the extension of the cave had not detected the secondary burial and this is the only evidence we have of a phased occupation (fig. 5). On the other hand, during the final phase, or before, a low wall was built in the channel, based on the remains of a wall dated to the initial phase of occupation. It must therefore be concluded that there was certainly a cyclical occupation with phases that were more intense than others, and it is likely that during the excavation only periods that had left a few more traces than others could be recorded1. The interest of the site lies in the perfect cleaning that was carried out in the cave before its last sepulchral use, and, except for three bones, nothing seems to have been left over from previous occupations. Therefore, as is the case for most of the sepulchral sites from this period, we can learn more about those who used it last than about those who first arranged it (Guilaine 2019). It is often difficult to interpret sites with mixed uses (Giot 1967), as in the case of Truels II, for the platforms and the channel.

17The site thus looks like a megalithic site, however, with a typology never described before –megalithism type II (Boulestin 2016). This hypothesis is reinforced by the discovery of a small axe lying on the surface in the passage against the block rammed naturally into the ground, which can therefore probably be attributed to the final stage of the Treilles group. This presence could be anecdotal, but several axes dated to the Neolithic period were discovered in sepulchral places in Southern France – and even elsewhere (Sohn 2010, Sauzade 1998, Abelanet 2011, Tchérémissinoff 2012), including a site resembling Truels II (Guilaine et al. 2015). Ethnographic examples often reveal that axes are protective elements, but at the time of death their edge must be hidden (Crubézy 2019). The presence of the axe reinforces the idea of a sepulchral site whose different parts in the channel, linked by functional but also symbolic roles, formed a unified complex. However, its period of use appears very classical for south-western France (Beyneix 2007, Guilaine et al. 2015), and even for many collective graves in Europe that were used throughout the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. It can be noted that the final phase of sepulchral occupation is dated to 2300-2030 BCE, which corresponds to the end of the Chalcolithic and the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. The precise radiocarbon dating (3745 ± 45 BP, i.e. 2291-2027 cal. BC) corresponds to the final stage of the Treilles group; a dating consistent with the artefacts. One of the last personal ornaments that was swept from the bottom of the cave (triangular pendant with double perforation) by the prehistoric users and pushed back into the diverticulum at the rear of the cave, can be assigned to the Early Bronze Age. As is the case for other sites in the Grands Causses (Thauvin-Boulestin 1997), the burial site may have been used until the Early Bronze Age (Crubézy et al. 2004). G. Costantini (2004) has dated the final stage of the Treilles group between 2500 and 2200 BCE, an observation shared by O. Lemercier (Lemercier 2010) with regard to the end of the Late Neolithic. However, according to J. Vital (2008), the Chalcolithic - Bell Beaker - Early Bronze Age transition must be studied at the regional scale because of the overlaps observed between 2150 and 2050 BCE (Vital 2008). Consequently, a duration of 100 to 200 years (4 to 8 generations) for the transition from the final stage of the Treilles group to the Early Bronze Age seems most likely for the final phase. G. Costantini (Costantini 2004) noted the scarcity of sites that can be attributed more specifically to this period, with the exception of certain sites including the dolmen of Saint-Martin II and this phase at the Truels II site.

18As comparisons with other regional and national sites have already been made (Crubézy et al. 2004), we will focus hereafter on the sites with new information and/or interpretations.

19Various types of collective burials dated to the period of use of the Truels II site and to the preceding period have been discovered on the Larzac plateau (Crubézy et al. 2004). One of the most famous is the eponymous site of the Treilles group, the Treilles I cave dated to around 3000 BCE (Balsan & Costantini 1972). This site contained the remains of more than a hundred individuals, essentially men from the same lineage, buried over a period spanning one to two centuries (Lacan et al. 2011). Since injury marks caused by arrowheads were found on the bones (Cordier 1990, Guilaine & Zammit 2001), this was likely a male clan burial site that hosted warriors. It should be noted that this male predominance was reported from dolmen tombs in north-western Europe, but the authors favoured the hypothesis of patrilineal rather than clan societies (Sánchez-Quinto et al. 2019).

  • 2 At Rec d'Aigues Rouges, for one of the sets, a container made of perishable material can be seriou (...)

20Concerning the “small sanctuary or a cult of relics” associated with the secondary burial, the most appropriate comparisons can be made on the Larzac plateau. A few kilometers from Truels II, a site dated to the same period (Champ de Quercy) may be interpreted in the same way (Pons 1995, Crubézy et al. 2004): “three aligned skulls rest partly on long bones gathered in bundles”…“this storage is very limited and occupies a small area of about 0.50 m2”…“which may suggest the existence of a container made of perishable material (wooden formwork, bag) ”…“the hypothesis of secondary burials cannot be excluded”…“in front of this storage there are the remains of about fifty vases”… “more than half of them are complete“…“a whole vase lying upside down. It is possible that the vase has rolled on the wall“…“These are mainly spherical bowls with rounded bottoms; their diameter at the opening rarely exceeds 15 cm.” (Pons 1991). Two other sites in Southern France, attributed to almost the same date (2467-2325 BCE and 2876-2619 BCE respectively), a posteriori raised the issue of secondary burials evoking that of Truels II, however, in the absence of vase and ceramic deposits (only a few sherds were collected). At these two sites, the Rec d’Aigues Rouges cave (Courtaud & Janin 1994) about 100 km south-east of Truels II and the Ubac dolmen at Goult (Bizot & Sauzade dir. 2015) about 250 km to the east, there were one or several earlier sepulchral phases (as is the case at Truels II) and a final or almost final phase associated with dismembered and scattered bones together with deposits of blocks and/or slabs. In the first case, the authors referred to disturbed primary burials, in the second case they were more skeptical, but they mentioned the anthropic extraction of many bones from the burial site, in a space which they think was not closed at that time. Finally, in these two cases, the authors favoured a scenario of primary deposition of the bodies and tried to explain why so few, scattered bones remained. A hypothesis that could also be considered is that these places were no longer burial sites but rather symbolic places which were visited by Neolithic people who deposited some of the bones of the deceased (including skull elements) between stone blocks2. This phenomenon may have developed towards 2500 BCE in Southern France when the occupation of several burial sites ended. Subsequent to this period, there was a gap before the following sepulchral phase resumed at Truels II.

  • 3 We have documented from large series of observations made in French cemeteries that currently in F (...)

21The phase of Truels II which precedes or is contemporary with the Early Bronze Age, raises the question of burials carried out in several stages and their demonstration. This is a more general question about methodology, and moreover a specific question for this transitional period in Southern France and Western Europe. The question of primary or secondary burials in Neolithic times is more than ever an open question and two opposite schools of thought have ignored each other over the last 40 years. The first school of thought, led by C. Renfrew (Renfrew 1979) developed in England. Faced with the disarticulated condition of many assemblages within the megaliths, the lack of bones in relation to a theoretical anatomical scheme, or even their fragmentation, this school of thought developed theories of curation and circulation of bones across the landscape, with the theme of transformation, manipulation and movements (for an overview of this question see: Crozier et al. 2016). From the beginning of the studies there were discordant voices in the osteological discussion (Benson & Clegg 1978), and in many cases there has still been no archaeological demonstration (Sjögren 2014). With this in mind, the authors sometimes identified two distinct categories of sites: those that yielded primarily phalanges, carpals, metacarpals and metatarsals which could be associated with a place of primary burial, and those with more visible elements such as skulls or long bones associated with a place of secondary burial (Dowd, 2008). The second school led by H. Duday (Duday 1990) developed in France. The demonstration of so-called labile connections (those of the hands, for example) in the tombs would certainly demonstrate that archaeologists were dealing with primary burials and the absence of bones was generally attributed to taphonomic phenomena (Bizot & Sauzade dir. 2015, Courtaud & Janin 1994). An overview reviewing the results from the sites excavated in France has raised doubts about distinct interpretations (Chambon 2003). Furthermore, forensic studies have demonstrated that 20% of the bodies in vaults mummify more or less spontaneously in temperate countries and that therefore labile connections could persist longer than initially thought3 (Crubézy et al. 2006, Charlier et al. 2009). At present, thanks to a better dissemination of ideas and publications, research is more qualified, all the more so because: 1/ The study of intact sites, with little or no disturbance by human and/or microfauna, has demonstrated that several cases (primary and secondary burials) could be found within the same megalithic tombs (Fernández et al. 2016) and that some bones may have been removed, perhaps as relics (Collectif 2016, Soler et al. 2003); 2/ Research was therefore oriented towards the counting of bones, or their weight in relation to a theoretical or practical count (from known primary burials deposited in similar contexts (Crubézy et al. 2004) or different types of primary or secondary burials (Bizot & Sauzade dir. 2015); 3/ A generalised interpretation of a homogenous burial rite seems inappropriate for the European Neolithic period as a whole, or even for a single region (Soler et al. 2003, Guilaine 2015, Crozier et al. 2016), which is not contrary to the overview established for France (Chambon 2003) and to the results stemming from the research carried out in the Grands Causses (Crubézy et al. 2004). Although there is a consensus about the re-analysis of human remains to understand the funerary role and functioning of most collective burials, for the moment these studies have not settled on a single academic interpretation. In that respect, some English-speaking authors interpret many megalithic sites as having received secondary burials; sites at great distances from each other continue to be considered as complementary sites even if their contemporaneity is not well demonstrated, as evidenced by the famous Orkney and Ireland demonstration (Dowd 2008, Reilly 2003) or the initial research of P. Kjærum (1967) in Denmark. French-speaking authors remain more reluctant and continue to refer to primary burials with missing bones that would have been removed, without speculating about the place of their final destination (Bizot & Sauzade dir. 2015). In this regard it must be specified whether sites that are culturally contemporary to those of Truels II can suggest a similar functioning.

  • 4 686 monoradicular teeth and 266 polyradicular teeth in René Carrié. Not counting the third molars (...)
  • 5 For a minimum number of 9 individuals over 10 years old at death provided by the authors there are (...)
  • 6 In this case there is a very large deficit of carpal bones although a few metacarpals are present, (...)

22In Southwestern France, J. Guilaine and colleagues (Guilaine et al. 2015) described three caves with a similar morphology, similar chronological sequences (absolute dating), and similar bone counts as in Truels II, notably the René Carrié cave dated to 2460-2200 BCE, which is contemporary to the final phase of Truels II. These sites are located far from cultivation areas and in a hidden position. They are characterised by a longitudinal profile similar to Truels II with a narrowing space, but above all, as is the case in Truels II, the cavity was closed and small bones and teeth were found in the rear part behind a slab or a wall (fig. 10).The difficulty of interpretation in the three cavities described is linked to the fact that in at least two of these, the bones of certain phases of occupation have not been completely removed as is the case in Truels II, and in some cases several bones or corpses were added during a later phase of the Bronze Age. These mixtures become apparent through the counting of a very low minimum number of individuals based on the bones. In two of the caves a completely different number of individuals was obtained based on the teeth. The dating on bone and associated artefacts also demonstrates the mixing of corpses from several periods. The René Carrié cave is the most interesting for illustrating our purpose. The counting of 11 adult individuals based on the bones was based on the column of the thumb and the first metacarpal (as in Truels II), while the counting of the teeth indicates that 76 individuals with an age at death of 10 years and older passed through the cavity! The differences between the number of mono- and polyradicular teeth compared to the theoretical number of these teeth for 76 individuals reveals a statistically highly significant difference as there is a surplus of monoradicular teeth compared to polyradicular teeth4. J. Guilaine’s team made an analogy with the Truels II site, and raised similar questions, notably that of the arrhythmic occupation, but they did not draw the same conclusions. This is understandable because these caves were subject to too many chronological and ritual mixes and they do not feature a platform and a channel. The authors described a "simple vault” that certainly had different functions depending on the period. Moreover, their review of the literature underlined that this type of sepulchral occupation in caves was not exceptional. On the Larzac plateau, the site of Truels I (Costantini 1955), which is located closest to Truels II, on the slope in front of Truels II, could also have been a site of primary deposition of the corpses at about the same time as Truels II. It is divided into two very small rooms, closed by a wall and preceded by a rocky platform which is about the same size as that of Truels II. The second room, which is entered from the first via a small opening, yielded small human fragments including 134 teeth with a majority of monoradicular teeth. G. Costantini considered a posteriori that the "ossuary" of Truels I was the equivalent of Truels II, even if at least one individual had been deposited late and the cave had known many previous occupations, mixed up in the archaeological layer of the first room. In the case of the three cavities studied by Jean Guilaine and colleagues (Guilaine et al. 2015), there are no elements to determine whether the destinations of the bodies were the dolmens, because those which were excavated in close proximity were unfortunately too disturbed, and dental counts could not be used (Guilaine 1972, 2019). Collective burials contemporary with the final phase of the Truels II cave with precisely recorded burial rites, which would make it possible to make comparisons are rare in Western Europe. However, a dolmen located far away, but associated with a Bell Beaker cultural context, the dating of which was performed on skeletal remains, must be close to the late phase of Truels II: dolmen MXI at the site of Le Petit-Chasseur in Sion, in the Upper Rhone valley in Switzerland. The gaps recorded in the bone and dental counts perplexed the authors (Gallay & Chaix 1984). Two hypotheses were proposed, that of the extraction of bones or that of the addition of isolated defleshed bones. The teeth count they provided seems to favour the hypothesis of secondary burials5, as does the count of the small bones6. In this case, however, the metacarpal count was quite similar to the minimum number of subjects and it may be possible that bodies were not manipulated by the limbs, and/or that during the manipulation the corpses were in a more advanced state of decomposition than in Truels II. It thus appears that at the end of the Chalcolithic and/or in the Early Bronze Age in several sites in Southern France and in a site in the Upper Rhone Valley, bodies may have been deposited in cavities – or other places in areas without natural caves – before being transferred to dolmens. The “Grands Causses” diverged from the Bell Beaker phenomenon, while the site of Petit-Chasseur is one of the best-known sites of this culture. This suggests that, apart from material elements, the end of the Chalcolithic period could be marked by similar sepulchral phenomena involving dolmens.

10. Plan of the 3 caves of the Corbières described by Guilaine et al. (2015), compared to Truels II (Crubézy et al. 2004) and Truels I (Costantini 1955).

10. Plan of the 3 caves of the Corbières described by Guilaine et al. (2015), compared to Truels II (Crubézy et al. 2004) and Truels I (Costantini 1955).

All the caves are represented on the same scale. The shape of the caves, considering the geological features, are similar: A wall closing the entrance and small human remains (teeth, carp bones, etc.) that were reassembled at the end of use are found at the bottom of the caves in spots that are sometimes well individualized (in yellow). From Guilaine et al. (2015), Crubézy et al. (2004) and Costantini (1955).

Conclusions: The transfer of corpses from caves to dolmen, toward an interpretation

23As pointed out above funerary rites can be subdivided into three stages: seeing the deceased, hiding the corpses away, and then transforming or sacralising them (Crubézy 2019). In some cultures, this sacralisation is based on the corpse or some of its remains. There are thus societies in which the living made the bodies “reappear” in order to see not the corpse but the deceased, and thus bring him or her into another world. These highly codified ceremonies aim to gradually transform the deceased and, concomitantly, his or her loved ones, gradually helpiung them to grieve by redistributing the place of the dead within the family and society. Among the treatment of corpses, secondary funerals, with burial of the remains in a place other than the one in which the body was initially deposited, are among the best known (Crubézy 2019). Travellers and ethnologists describe a transfer of the body or bodies from the primary area of deposition to the final area of deposition which is codified and gives rise to often collective ceremonies (Crubézy 2019). What is striking for the Truels II site is that the artistic rendering of the site suggests that it had a monumental aspect and that its choice was not insignificant. It is a site in a natural rock formation, with a dark, narrow passageway, used by populations for more than 1,500 years and accessed via a descent from the plateau. In the Neolithic of western Europe, this type of cave consisting of a simple long narrow passage has already been established as a primary disposal site for corpses that were subsequently moved elsewhere, because “It is possible that these passage-type caves were the most symbolic of a passage to another world and/or passage to the world of the dead. They best represent the liminal nature of caves: the boundary between the outside world and the cave interior is immediately apparent. The restricted space reinforces the sense of ‘passage’ or the sense of moving into another world” (Dowd 2008). Since the initial publication of P. Kjærum (Kjærum 1967) these sites where the dead would be deposited before being moved in a second stage have been called “mortuary houses” by English-speaking authors. Dolmens, on the other hand, were located as close as possible to the agricultural areas in clearly visible, open and therefore sunny areas. To imagine a ceremony during which one or more corpses were transferred from the site of Truels II to one or more dolmens, going back up to the plateau and to the space of the living, is therefore not extraordinary and the symbolism is very strong. Once in the dolmen some skulls were certainly extracted during other ceremonies. It remains unknown where they were deposited, but ethnographic examples show that this could be in “clan sanctuaries”, sometimes after a passage through the settlement, as part of ritual actions within the context of ancestor worship. To our knowledge, such sanctuaries have never been described so far on the Larzac plateau, but some are known as “skull caves” in Southern France where they were excavated previously (Guilaine et al. 2015). If this scenario of skull extraction took place in the dolmen of Saint-Martin II, then we are dealing with a complex scenario of multiple burials, which implies that different sites were used at different times.

24Contact maintained with the dead affirms the structuring of societies; the dead coming from a dark place where they could have their own personality return to a sunny place in the world of the collective community during ceremonies involving the relationship between the individual and the collective. In the dolmen grave they will gradually become integrated into a community of ancestors. These ceremonies and sites witnessed a gradual process of depersonalisation of the deceased (Crubézy 2019). The treatment of the dead certainly reflects the structure of the community of the living: the community but certainly also the clan for the individuals whose skulls were removed. These observations would then relate – more than traditional observations – to the archaeological artefacts or the architectural evolution of the monuments, the cultural evolutions and even the cultural distribution areas of Neolithic societies at the end of the Chalcolithic period.

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Tchérémissinoff 2012, TCHÉRÉMISSINOFF Y. Ed., La sépulture collective mégalithique de Cabrials (Béziers, Hérault). Une petite allée sépulcrale enterrée du début du Néolithique final = The megalithic collective burial of Cabrials (Béziers, Hérault). A very small below-ground gallery grave dating from the beginning of the Final Neolithic, Aix-en-Provence, APPAM, 2012, 144 p. (Préhistoires méditerranéennes ; 3).

Thauvin-Boulestin 1997, THAUVIN-BOULESTIN E., Approche du Bronze ancien et moyen dans les Grands-Causses et les Causses du Quercy, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 1997, 94, 4, p. 551-572.

Vital 2008, VITAL J., La séquence Néolithique final-Bronze ancien dans l'axe rhodanien : enseignements chronométriques et perspectives culturelles, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, 2008, 105, 3 "Les ensembles problématiques de la transition Néolithique - Bronze en France", p. 539-554.

Zeeb-Lanz 2011, ZEEB-LANZ A., Besondere Schädel und mehr—der rätselhafte bandkeramische Ritualplatz von Herxheim (Pfalz), in: Schädelkulẗdelkult : Kopf und Schä̈del in der Kulturgeschichte des Menschen, Wieczorek A., Rosendahl W. (dir.), Regensburg, Schnell & Steiner, 2011, p. 47-51 (Publikationen der Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen ; 41).

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Notes

1 It should be noted that the dating of several dozen teeth may be of great interest for this site.

2 At Rec d'Aigues Rouges, for one of the sets, a container made of perishable material can be seriously considered.

3 We have documented from large series of observations made in French cemeteries that currently in France in closed cellars, 20% of the bodies mummify naturally (Crubézy et al. 2006). In the case of natural mummification, the extremities (hands and feet) dry out and connections that are considered to be labile may remain in place several years after the bodies have decomposed. This means that even after being transported from the cave of Truels II, some corpses still had bones in the anatomical order. This is in line with Benson and Clegg (1978), who pointed out that “The ritual principles on which interment or re-interment may be based, need have no necessary connection with the principles of anatomical order.

4 686 monoradicular teeth and 266 polyradicular teeth in René Carrié. Not counting the third molars due to late eruption and agenesis, and considering 4 monoradicular teeth per hemi-maxilla and 5 per hemi-mandible, the theoretical numbers assumed for the René Carrié cave should be 1368 monoradiucleated and 1064 polyradiated teeth.

5 For a minimum number of 9 individuals over 10 years old at death provided by the authors there are 106 monoradicular teeth and 75 polyradicular teeth. Compared to the theoretical number of monoradicular and polyradicular teeth, the difference is not statistically significant; the trend is correct but the sample is too small. On the other hand, the difference is statistically significant with René Carrié, demonstrating that the two sites could be (all proportions considered) complementary.

6 In this case there is a very large deficit of carpal bones although a few metacarpals are present, as if the corpses had been collected in a more advanced state of decomposition than in Truels II. They could for example not have been manipulated by the extremities but simply "extracted".

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Table des illustrations

Titre 1. Location of the site in France, looking north from the hamlet of “Les Truels”.
Légende The sea of clouds covers the Dourbie valley, at the bottom the Causse Noir, the footpath towards Les Truels II is at the end of the meadow. The map illustrates the old trail that goes down from the plateau to Les Truels II and from there to the Dourbie and the Causse Noir. Photo E. Crubézy.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,3M
Titre 2. Compilation of calibrated 14C data (cal. BC) from the Truels II site.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 9,9M
Titre 3. Longitudinal section of the cavity and the front of the cave.
Légende The layer corresponding to the final phase of the Treilles Group 3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 cal. BC, is in red. The platform and locking blocks related to this phase are in yellow. Section E. Crubézy and P. Gérard.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12M
Titre 4. Artistic rendering of the secondary burial (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e.2573 to 2333 cal. BC) of the middle/final phase of the Treilles Group.
Légende Note the 4 white stones (Elephant Skin Dolomite) originating from the top of the plateau. Reconstitution N. Sénégas.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 11M
Titre 5. Artistic rendering of the cave entrance between the middle/final phase of the Groupe des Treilles (3950 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2573 to 2333 BC) and the final phase (3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 BC).
Légende The secondary burial is covered with erosion-related blocks. Reconstitution N. Sénégas.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12M
Titre 6. The upper part of the platform in front of the cave seen from the east at an early stage of its excavation.
Légende One notices the very clear limits to the east and south (where there has been a collapse) of the platform, initially limited by a structure made of wood. Photo E. Crubézy.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Titre 7. Artistic rendering of the site in the final phase of sepulchral occupation, final phase of the Treilles Group 3745 +/- 45 BP, i.e. 2291 to 2027 cal. BC.
Légende The limits found in the form of a "wall negative" were restituted in the form of squared logs. The platform bounded in part by a wall can be considered certain, the one further upstream is more hypothetical, but it is possible that others still existed upstream. The dolomotic cliff bordering the site to the east (the cave is to the west) is slightly concave and thus protects a narrow passage, sheltered from bad weather and rock falls, where man took shelter during the middle Bronze Age (hearths) and which during the phases of sepulchral occupation seems to have served as a very narrow passage. The cliff (east) is interrupted at the level of the cave and, between it and a dolomitic rock that follows it, there is a narrow passage that leads to another a narrow channel. It is at this location that an axe was found (symbolic entrance to the site?). Reconstitution N. Sénégas.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,1M
Titre 8. Aspect of the hand of a corpse deposited in an experimental vault (known environment) for 3 years and whose hand has been manipulated to extract it from the coffin (study on the functioning of cemeteries conducted within the framework of a Scientific Interest Group - GIS - on the functioning of cemeteries in France).
Légende The column of the thumb (initially on the inside of the hand) has fallen as well as the last two phalanges of the fifth finger. We notice a beginning of dissociation of the articular spacing between the carpal bones and those of the forearm. Some carpal bones were close to falling. At the level of the feet, the whole metatarsus appears more resistant but would have fallen if the mobilization by the feet persisted. In the case of mummification or natural drying, this order of decomposition is not respected, the extremities tending to dry out and very often the lumbar vertebrae fall first (Giscard et al. 2014). Photo E. Crubézy.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,6M
Titre 9. Reconstruction of the possible itinerary for transporting the bodies between Truels II and one of the dolmens on the site of Saint-Martin du Larzac.
Légende The shortest itineraries bypass the limestone elevation a few dozen meters high with a flattened summit that separates Saint- Martin from the edge of the plateau. There is no evidence to suggest that this route was used. A longer possible itinerary (the one presented) passes through the top of the limestone elevation and joins a medieval path still marked on the ground by ruts cut into the rock. The interest of this path is that it is based on a path that is certainly very ancient. At the top of the climb from Truels II, the whole micro-region can be seen clearly and the track from west to east is parallel to the dolmens that are overlooked like all the cultivated areas. Reconstitution by P. Gérard from Google Earth.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,7M
Titre 10. Plan of the 3 caves of the Corbières described by Guilaine et al. (2015), compared to Truels II (Crubézy et al. 2004) and Truels I (Costantini 1955).
Légende All the caves are represented on the same scale. The shape of the caves, considering the geological features, are similar: A wall closing the entrance and small human remains (teeth, carp bones, etc.) that were reassembled at the end of use are found at the bottom of the caves in spots that are sometimes well individualized (in yellow). From Guilaine et al. (2015), Crubézy et al. (2004) and Costantini (1955).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/pm/docannexe/image/2708/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,3M
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Éric Crubézy, « Hiding the dead in caves and sacralizing them in dolmens »Préhistoires Méditerranéennes, 9.2 | -1, 21-38.

Référence électronique

Éric Crubézy, « Hiding the dead in caves and sacralizing them in dolmens »Préhistoires Méditerranéennes [En ligne], 9.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 septembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pm/2708 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/pm.2708

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Éric Crubézy

eric.crubezy@univ-tlse3.fr
UMR 5288, Anthropologie moléculaire et Imagerie de Synthèse
37 allées Jules Guesde, 31 000 Toulouse

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