West-central France is scattered with Neolithic megalithic monuments, but the sites that were home to the people who built them have long eluded archaeologists. Now excavations at a site called Le Peu, in the department of Charente, have uncovered a residential enclosure more than 6,000 years old, which is thought to be associated with the nearby megalithic cemetery at Tusson.
A monumental discovery
The research at Le Peu, carried out by Dr Vincent Ard (from the French National Centre for Scientific Research) and a team of researchers, began in 2011 when an aerial survey identified evidence of a Neolithic enclosure at the site. This was followed by over a decade of further investigations, including excavations between 2014 and 2021, as well as geomagnetic survey, bioarchaeological analysis of the wider environment, and 3D reconstructions of the site.
The enclosure encompasses a small promontory, c.700m long and 275m wide, at the pinnacle of which once sat at least four timber houses, each c.13m long and rectangular in shape: the oldest examples of this form of building known in this part of France. Although only their post-holes survive, we know that the four buildings are of a similar date, most likely from the earliest phase of occupation at the Middle Neolithic site, and probably had walls of wattle-and-daub and thatched roofs. Traces of small posts in one of the buildings suggest the presence of a slightly raised platform that could have accommodated a sleeping or kitchen area. Excavations have also uncovered evidence of hearths, pottery sherds, flints, and animal remains, confirming Le Peu’s function as a domestic site.
The buildings on top of the hill were protected by several forms of defences, both natural and manmade. At the time of Le Peu’s construction, the promontory on which the settlement was built was surrounded by a shallow valley on its western side and by a horseshoe-shaped marsh on all other sides. This advantageous defensive position was strengthened by a ditch with a double timber palisade. Later developments, seemingly intended to further improve the site’s fortifications, included the construction of two large, bastion-like entrance structures along its boundary, which were protected by ditches, shaped like crab claws, placed on either side of the breaks in the site’s enclosure ditch. There are currently no known parallels of this sort of monumental construction from the Middle Neolithic. This enhancement of the site’s monumentality and defences may perhaps have been connected to a rise in social tensions at the time. However, it appears that ultimately these efforts were unsuccessful: around 4400 BC, the whole site was burned to the ground, and there is no sign of further occupation after this date.
Just 2.5km away, and directly in the line of sight of anyone standing at the top of the hill at Le Peu, is the megalithic cemetery site of Tusson. Made up of an alignment of five long mounds, the site is 139m long and among the most imposing known in Europe. Although the Tusson mounds have not undergone extensive archaeological investigations, the team investigating at Le Peu used non-invasive methods to find out more about the nearby megalithic site. Geomagnetic surveys identified hundreds of small circular quarries surrounding the tumuli that would have been used to extract the stone required to build them. Once the stone had been quarried, deer antlers were deposited at the bottom of each shaft. Radiocarbon dating of these discoveries has placed the initial construction stages of the megalithic structures at Tusson as early as 4600 BC, with a period of intense exploitation between 4350 BC and 4080 BC – the same as the main period of occupation at Le Peu.
We cannot say for certain how the two sites were connected, but – given that they were constructed and occupied at the same time, and sit within view of each other in the landscape – it is extremely likely that they were linked in some way, and it is more than possible that the Tusson monuments were indeed built by the inhabitants of Le Peu.
Life and death on the Atlantic coast
Although other enclosures contemporary with megalithic necropolises are known in places like the UK and Denmark, these examples all date to more recent periods of the Neolithic. What is more, the settlement at Le Peu represents the first known enclosure of this size built at the same time as the Neolithic monuments of west-central France, an area that is one of the earliest centres of megalithic construction in Europe. The settlement is also one of just a few domestic sites contemporary with megalithic necropolises currently known in all of western France. This makes Le Peu an important new reference-site for the study of the region’s earliest megalithic structures and the people who built them, revealing that residential sites existed here in the Middle Neolithic on a monumental scale never before seen in prehistoric Atlantic society.
The discovery is significant, too, for our understanding of how megalithic sites like the Tusson cemetery were connected to the wider landscape, and the relationship between megalithism and settlement enclosures, demonstrating that these two forms of monumental architecture developed together as early as the mid-5th millennium BC on the Atlantic coast.
The team’s archaeological work in the region continues, including research currently being carried out on a second, slightly more recent Neolithic enclosure located less than 2km from Le Peu. Vincent Ard believes that future research is likely to uncover more examples of such sites, offering us further insights into the lives of people previously known chiefly from their monuments to the dead.
The results of the recent research have been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.169).