Do some urban places attract prehistory? Can urban prehistory be utilised by contemporary society to help us remember the past? And is a standing stone a fitting civic gift to a great European city? All of these questions came to mind during a recent visit I made with Jan to a granite menhir located next to a basketball court and a block of flats in the 14th arrondissement on the south side of Paris.
The menhir was erected outside a block of flats at 133 Rue Vercingetorix, south of Montparnasse, 30 years ago. It was a gift from Brittany, the region of France most strongly associated with Neolithic standing stones, from tall and beautiful menhir, to the thousands of megaliths that characterise the multiple stone rows at Carnac. This is not a prehistoric menhir, plucked from the Morbihan and transported to Paris, but rather a modern quarried equivalent of a megalith, a shiny new megalith (more or less), a gift from one area of France to another. At the base of the stone is a plaque which carries the (now almost impossible to read) inscription:
‘Ce menhir offert à la ville de Paris à l’initiative de la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie du Morbihan et réalisé par sept granitiers bretons. Il a été inauguré en 1983 par le président du Sénat de l’époque, Alain Poher.’
Which roughly translates to:
‘This menhir was presented to the city of Paris by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Morbihan. The work of seven Breton granite workers, it was unveiled by Monsieur Alain Poher, President of the Senate in 1983.’
There are several variants of the inscription text to be found online, with some suggesting the monolith was erected on the 13th or 18th September 1983.
What is a menhir? This is a Breton word for standing stone, and thousands of these have been recorded in Brittany, sometimes in single or multiple rows, but in other cases as majestic and free-standing monoliths. Most of them date to the early Neolithic period, older than 4000BC, although later in the Neolithic some were toppled, broken up and re-used as the roofs of passage graves and megalithic tombs. Not all met this fate, however, and some of the tallest standing stones in the world still stand in western France. The largest menhir of all, however – Grand Menhir Brisé – lies broken into three huge pieces, apparently toppled by a medieval earthquake (or less likely, a lightning strike). This megalith represents a true marvel of European prehistory, 20m in length and weighing perhaps 300 or more tonnes, dragged 10km across the landscape from its quarry site and erected in a project of crazy ambition. Most menhir are not on this scale, but still represent some of the finest examples of public monumentality from the Neolithic.
I have visited menhir before in France, mostly in Brittany, such as the example pictured above, although I have never travelled to see one via underground train before. We got the Metro line 13 to the Plaisance stop, and walked in the dreary drizzle for about 5 minutes, quickly finding the megalith. It is situated in a small grassy area, just outside the front door of 133 Rue Vercingetorix, adjacent to a basketball pitch surrounded by a green fence. Made of pink-grey granite and some 2m high, the stone has a crisp and clean appearance (more like a kitchen work-surface than megalith) although there is a skin of green lichen towards the tapered top of the monolith.
A raised area at the base of the west side of the standing stone hints at the quarrying process by which this stone was sourced, giving the monolith an approximation of the classic hog-back shape common to many prehistoric menhir such as those that form the Carnac rows. Rather like Stonehenge, this mégalithe sits within a tarmac triangle (of pathways rather than roads).
Verticality surrounds the standing stone – lamp-posts, bins, fences, trees and tower blocks, including the Tour Montparnasse disappearing into the clouds to the north. Local people wandered past carrying carrier bags, looking disinterested in the menhir with which they must be so familiar. Cars sped past on the wet road offering a drab soundscape. But is the road actually the reason why the stone was erected here? This is a place with recurring prehistoric associations.
The address itself recalls the Iron Age: Rue Vercingetorix. This street is named after a famous Gaulish tribal leader who fought against the Romans in the 1st century BC, eventually being executed in Rome in 46BC according to Roman historians such as Plutarch. His daring exploits caused the Romans to construct a ‘doughnut-shaped’ fortification (which sounds like an improvement on their usual boring rectangles) during the Battle of Alesia in 52BC. Appropriated as a symbol of French nationalism, the chief has appeared in Asterix books and more recently in a French movie (Vercingetorix, but called Druids in English), played by a comical looking Christopher Lambert.
Round the corner from the menhir, on the Rue D’Alesia (named after the aforementioned battle I assume) is a remarkable and huge mural of Palaeolithic cave-painting-type images on the gable end of a building, which overlooks a small park called Square Alesia-Ridder. The mural consists of very large kinetic images of animals like elephants / mammoths, deer, horses and birds. Hunting and running humans are interspersed across the mural, and other less obvious symbols are apparent: shapes made of hands and arms, criss-crossing lines, a weird teddy bear type figure, all drenched in terracotta and ochre reds and oranges. The work is signed ‘Bryan Becheri 1992’ just beside the image of a kebab outside an adjacent ‘Grec’ carryout establishment. I have been unable to find out anything more about the artist or this dramatic painting, but it offers unmistakable illusions to an even more ancient and distant past than the menhir.
This is a special place, then, but before leaving this corner of Paris that represents in different ways other French places and times, I want to consider an intriguing French explanation for menhir. This explanation was postulated by the French physician and biologist, Jean Trousier, in a short article published in volume 12 of the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1932.
Trousier believed that standing stones were primal symbols, representative of the ‘phallus of the chief, and thence, taking the part for the whole, of the chief himself’, demonstrating that the first farmers were conversant with synecdoche. The theory developed further, however, to cover other types of megaliths, such as dolmen (passage grave tombs) and trilithons. And so the trilithons at Stonehenge were a ‘rough and simple image of the female organs’; this imagery was perfected with the deep, hollow dolmen, indicating ‘precisely the female vagina’. This argument is quite typical for its time (an idea we now rightly view as very simplistic and crude), with heavy overtones of unconscious sexual symbolism, where the erection of a standing stone could become entangled in ideas of blood sacrifice and father-figures. The article finished with a flourish, bringing us back to Paris, because Trousier argued that one could see the menhir/penis/male: dolmen/vagina/female symbolism in the modern triumphal architecture of the city with its ultimate expression the Arc de Triomphe, ‘this colossal dolmen’.
This intriguing article does not do justice to the complexity of megaliths either in prehistory or urban contexts. But there is an interesting thread in what he said. The argument that runs through Trousier’s paper is that erecting standing stones, and other related (but opposed) structures is an inherently human things to do. When a statement of power must be made, when victory must be celebrated, when an extravagant gift is given or sacrifice made, then men in power fall back on primitive, primeval symbols to mark the event. At 133 Rue Vercingetorix many of these ideas came together with the erection of a standing stone gifted from businessmen, made by artisans, to a great city, on the side of a street named after a warrior chief.
My short fieldtrip to the southern side of Paris revealed an unexpected series of prehistoric connections in close proximity to one another, each echoing a different but significant aspect of the prehistory of France from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Paris is a city steeped in its own history of course, yet her prehistory remains for the most part hidden. Yet even then, even with all of the urbanisation, conflict and improvement, hints of a more distant past can still be found, even if these are iconic symbols of France rather than direct survivors of what once stood in place we now call Paris.
Sources: I first found out about the Paris menhir in the book Secret Paris by Jacques Garance and Maud Ratton (Jonglez 2010); this book was the source of the translated inscription at the base of the standing stone. For an up-to-date and authoritative guide to the megaliths of Brittany, see Chris Scarre’s 2011 book Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany (OUP). The Arc de Triomphe postcard is available widely online. I was accompanied on my trip by Jan.