Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany


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From October 2020, a team from Inrap has been carrying out an excavation in the commune of Plougonvelin (Finistère) on westernmost tip of Brittany, as part of a future property project. The archaeologists have unearthed an important necropolis dating from the Early Bronze Age (between 2000 and 1600 BC). To date, some fifty burials have been excavated over nearly 1800 square metres. Although other funerary complexes of this type most probably exist in Brittany, this is the first time that the opportunity has been given to study a site of this scale. 

Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
View of the necropolis of rue du Plateau [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]

It is worth recalling that, at the regional level, work on Early Bronze funerary practices and architectural structures has, since the 19th century, focused mainly on the innumerable Armorican tumuli. Alongside these funerary monuments, burial tombs such as those at Bono in Morbihan (L. Juhel excavation) or Santec in Finistère (Y. Lecerf excavation) are nevertheless known but remain, in the current state of research, less frequent and less documented.

The existence of the Plougonvelin Necropolis has been suspected since the late 1950s with the regular discovery, during various works, of tombs in the vicinity of the Rue du Plateau and the area around the site. The funerary complex, the study of which has just been completed in the field, is remarkable for more than one reason and offers numerous research prospects.

Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Cist tomb [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Cist tomb [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Overhead view of two cist tombs [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]

In addition to the number of graves cleared (55 to date), their architectural variety is noteworthy. Cist tombs, wood caskets, cist tombs containing wood caskets, cairns, some with a stone slab cover still in place, have been uncovered. Do these show an evolution of the funerary space over a long period of time? The status of the deceased? Future studies should make it possible to clarify this. 

The general organisation of the burial space is also remarkable. Alignments or concentrations of tombs alternating with empty areas bear witness to particular space management and groupings. In its present state, this structuring does not seem to mark any chronological differences, but more likely corresponds to family or community groupings. They may therefore provide evidence of the the hierarchical structure of early Bronze Age societies. It should be pointed out that no overlapping of burials was observed, which suggests that they were marked on the surface of the ground by a cairn, a stele or simply by their covering slab.

Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Tomb having retained its cover slab and an adjoining cist grave
[Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Stone-lined tomb [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Grave with remains of a wooden coffin [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]

The good state of preservation of most of the tombs also provides a lot of information about the construction methods and techniques used at the time. The blocks of stone used to make the chests (micaschist, orthogneiss, granodiorite) seem, according to initial observations, to have come from the immediate vicinity. Some tombs with perfectly fitted stone slabs show a desire to avoid sediment infiltration. However, over time, these tombs ended up filling up with silt. As the soil in the area was particularly acidic, the bodies were completely dissolved. 

Only one of these tombs, which remained perfectly watertight, yielded the remains of a fairly well-preserved skeleton. Anthropological observations made in situ indicate that it was an adult female lying on her right side in the foetal position. It also seems that the body was placed in a basket-like container made of perishable material. In view of the good state of preservation of the bones, isotope and DNA analyses are planned in order to clarify the diet and origin of the deceased.

Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Two graves under study. In the left one, we can see the lower limbs of an adult
individual buried in a foetal position [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Detailed view of the unearthed skeleton. The imprint of the body is still noticeable. It is probable
that the layer of sea sand deposited at the bottom of the trunk and the sealing of the latter
 favoured the conservation of organic matter [Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]
Early Bronze Age necropolis unearthed in Brittany
Funeral urn probably containing the remains of an infant
[Credit: S. Blanchet, Inrap]

Very little archaeological material has been found within the burials. A ceramic found in one of them was probably a funerary vase used as a container for the body of an immature person. As far as funerary rituals are concerned, the beds of sea sand deposited at the bottom of most stone chests and sometimes the contributions of sea pebbles are worth noting. While such gestures remain difficult to interpret, a symbolism linked to the nearby sea may possibly be envisaged.

In the absence of associated archaeological objects and sufficient stratigraphic elements, it will undoubtedly be difficult to propose a precise chronology of the Plougonvelin necropolis. On the other hand, future studies on the typology and organisation of the various burials, as well as a comparative approach with other funerary complexes in the region, will certainly complete and refine our knowledge of the ancient Armorican Bronze Age cemeteries.

The necropolis of Rue du Plateau will finally be placed in a wider geographical and topographical framework in order to address this question of territories and to better assess its status. In fact, just like habitats, funeral sites can, through their size or their strategic location on a territorial scale, be good indicators of the organisation or social status of the populations that developed and used them.

Source: Inrap [trsl. TANN; January 14, 2021]

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