Collective burials are a striking and recurrent feature in many Neolithic contexts and horizons, especially across wide areas of western Europe (see also Valencina de la Concepción, Seville) and the west and central Mediterranean (see the Brochtorff Circle at Xagħra, Gozo, Malta). When contained in monuments, collective burials mostly do not belong to the primary phases of the Neolithic in continental western Europe, but generally appear in later horizons. In the case of the Paris basin in northern France, built monuments with collective burials were first constructed in numbers in the Néolithique récent II in the mid-fourth millennium cal BC, and some were used until the end of the third millennium cal BC in the Néolithique final and Early Bronze Age; Neolithic occupation of the region had begun back in the late sixth millennium cal BC.
In northern France, the main concentration of such monuments lies in the area of the Seine, Oise and Marne rivers and surrounds. The monuments take two main forms. Allées sépulchrales (formerly known as allées couvertes or gallery graves) are elongated, rectangular boxes, normally in stone, though sometimes in wood, with walls, capstones and floor paving, and sometimes elaborated entrances with symbolic ‘portholes’. Found principally in the Marne, hypogées are chalk-cut tombs, often with a descending entrance passage, opening into more or less simple, rectangular or square chambers; some have ante-chambers as well. Famous examples of these two types are La Chaussée-Tirancourt, Somme, excavated by Jean Leclerc and Claude Masset, and Les Mournouards II, Marne, excavated by André Leroi-Gourhan, respectively. The deposits from both have been the subject of a recent PhD by Arnaud Blin.
There are interesting and significant differences between the two types. There can be marked concentrations of hypogées, seemingly forming cemeteries, whereas the allées sépulchrales tend to occur on their own or in small groups. Both can contain large numbers of skeletons, into the low hundreds of people per site. Many of the dead are laid in an extended position, supine on their backs. Successive deposition is likely, with some disturbance of previous burials. Later episodes of partial emptying have been demonstrated, and whereas deposits belonging to the Néolithique récent II often cover much or all of the available space in allées sépulchrales, those of the Néolithique final are often set in more confined contexts.
These monuments raise many questions, and are particularly important evidence at a time when settlement is hard to find. When, in detail, did they begin to be constructed? How quickly did the fashion spread, and how long did it last? How long did individual monuments last in use, and can different episodes within their histories be detected? What may the collective burial rite of intact, whole corpses signify? Do the assembled human remains evoke a sense of communal solidarity, or are they representatives of a much smaller section of the population, for example from prominent lineages or some kind of elite?
The times of their lives project is contributing to the ongoing study of an allées sépulchrales at Sainte-Claude, Bury, Oise. Bury was excavated from 2001–7 by Laure Salanova and Philippe Chambon (CNRS-UMR 7055 and 7041). At about 20 m, its chamber is unusually long, and contained perhaps as many as 300 individuals. Preliminary radiocarbon dating indicates a long history of use from the mid–later fourth millennium cal BC into the later third millennium cal BC. Further radiocarbon dating and formal modelling of results should enable the details of the sequence to be further distinguished. We had hoped to date a second allées sépulchrales at Bazoches, Ainse, discovered during the excavations of the ditched enclosure of the same name by Jérôme Dubouloz, excavated by Jean Leclerc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now the subject of a PhD study by Anne-Sophie Marçais. Unfortunately, trial analysis of three human bone samples by the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit failed to extract any collagen, so that this possibility must be abandoned.
Local Partners: Laure Salanova, Philippe Chambon, Anne-Sophie Marçais, and Arnaud Blin.
UK Team: Frances Healy, Alistair Barclay, Alex Bayliss, and Alasdair Whittle
Chambon, P. 2003. Les morts dans les sépultures collectives néolithiques en France: du cadavre aux restes ultimes. XXXVe to Gallia Préhistoire. Paris: CNRS Éditions.
Leroi-Gourhan, A., Bailloud, G. and Brézillon, M. 1962. L’hypogée II des Mournouards (Mesnil-sur-Ogil, Marne). Gallia Préhistoire 5, 23–133.
Masset, C. 1972. The megalithic tomb of La Chaussée-Tirancourt. Antiquity 46, 297–300.
Salanova, L., Brunet, P., Cottiaux, R., Hamon, T., Langry-François, Martineau, R., Polloni, A., Renard, C. and Sohn, M. 2011. Du Néolithique récent à l’âge du Bronze dans le centre nord de la France: les étapes de l’évolution chrono-culturelle. In F. Bostyn, E. Martial and I. Praud (eds), Le Néolithique du nord de la France dans son contexte européen: habitat et économie aux 4e et 3e millénaires avant notre ère, 77– 118. Revue Archéologique de Picardie, No special 28.
Salanova, L., Sohn, M. 2012. L’architecture en bois de la sépulture collective néolithique de Bury (Oise). In F. Carré and F. Henrion (eds), Le bois dans l’architecture et l’aménagement de la tombe : quelles approches ?, Actes de la table ronde d’Auxerre (15–17 octobre 2009), Mémoires de l’Association française d’Archéologie mérovingienne XIII, 221–28.