The megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans of Aosta

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In the history of mankind there are certain places that have been called sacred by ancestors, and from that remote time they remain unchanged in their transcendent hierophany. These are cultic centres that hold testimonies of universal belonging, sometimes monumental traces of our past. They are material testimonies of a lost era, when rites were officiated by means of the stone and the soil. In Aosta, near the church of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans, there is a megalithic area that has been characterized as a sacred place for millennia. It has preserved its ritual and funerary function for over six thousand years, even as beliefs and peoples have changed. This continuous dimension of worship has manifested itself through a rich variety of expression: propitiatory practices, wells, menhirs, stele statues, dolmens, and finally in the Christian church of San Martin (12th century).

The archaeological site and the museum

The archaeological site of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans was discovered by chance in 1969. During some building excavations, finds of exceptional value were unearthed. There, where the foundations of edifices were planned, those of human beings were rediscovered. The finding was due to a strange event. The discovery was due to a strange event. While construction workers were extracting some rocks from the ground, two archaeologists from Aosta, Franco Mezzena and Rosanna Mollo, were casually observing the work. We can imagine their surprise when not stones and boulders, but ancient carved slabs emerged from the ground!

Aosta Valley region, therefore, ordered the area to be seized. The most significant part of the research was concluded in 1990, but archaeological excavations continue to this day. At Saint-Martin, archaeologists observed a complex stratigraphy, six meters deep and covering about ten thousand square meters. Hence, it was decided to qualify the site by building a roof structure that could guarantee its preservation. In 2016, a museum and exhibition route were inaugurated enclosing the megalithic area in an indoor space [1].

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
The megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans. The indoor structure is intended to reproduce to reproduce day and night lighting conditions.

Testimonies from the past

The Sacred Ploughing of the megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

The earliest phase of use of the area for cultic purposes dates back to the Neolithic age. At Saint-Martin-de-Corléans, someone had already consecrated the soil by the end of the 5th millennium BC. A series of ridges are found in the land along a wide silty bank. The parallel and regular arrangement of the furrows suggests that the local people made them through the agricultural practice of sacred ploughing. From that time on, the soil was no longer moved tilled. As it hardened and stratified, it preserved the furrows until modern rediscovery.

Most likely, It was a propitiatory rite for the fertility of the land. Some evidence suggests that the soil was ploughed by means of a wooden plow, pulled by oxen. This would be a discovery of exceptional importance, if confirmed: the oldest agricultural practices of ploughing by means of animals, known so far, date back only to the Eneolithic period.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
Furrows and ridges of sacred ploughing left in view

The votive pits

Fifteen circular pits used for votive purposes date to a later period. The ritual officiants filled these primordial pits with millstones and seeds. There is evidence of a continuity of propitiatory beliefs over time and of their evolution: the extra-empirical function of the rite went beyond the concept of the bare land fertility of hunter-gatherer societies. It started to consider its fruits, so that agricultural work could also be fertile and productive.

The grinding tools and the seeds were burned together in the depth of the well as a votive offering to the deity. The remains of the burning made it possible to identify the varieties of seeds used, mostly legumes and cereals, and especially to date the wells. Indeed, carbon-14 analysis of the organic residues provided a date between 4300 and 3950 BC. The arrangement of the wells follows a northeast to southwest orientation, suggesting the directive for a probable settlement in the area, which, however, is still unknown.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
Votive pits of the megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans: archaeologists have found burnt millstones and seeds at the bottom.

The wooden totems of the megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

Since the end of the fourth millennium B.C., the megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans was characterized by the presence of aligned and erected monuments. Of the twenty-four oldest wooden piles, arranged in the same orientation as the pits, only the holes in the ground remain. Here traces of votive anthropological practices are evident. Inside the pits, archaeologists found the remains of seed burning. The analysis of the organic residues revealed the use of larch and pine stems for making the poles.

This sculpted wooden poles were likely to have a totemic function. It is possible that they were associated with the mythical ancestors of the tribes settled at the Saint-Martin-de-Corléans site. Ancestor worship therefore had a twofold significance. First, the wooden simulacra marked the sacred place that the ancestors had chosen. Such monuments are not surprisingly found close to high mountains, near clearings, or where it was necessary to indicate transit routes. Moreover, totem poles ideally represented the spirit guides, beings beyond nature toward whom propitiatory practices could be directed.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
The bases of the wooden poles

The menhirs and the megalithic statues

Similar beliefs persisted throughout the fourth millennium, nonetheless shifting from wood to stone. Thus menhirs and some polygonal slabs, just hewn and sometimes pierced by a hole, began to be placed in the ground.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
A menhir and a polygonal slab

These lithic markers took on anthropomorphic forms over time. At Saint-Martin-de-Corléans excavations have revealed more than forty Statues menhir. All of these monoliths, made of schist rock or more rarely bardiglio marble, exhibit a trapezoidal shape. The human figure appears sketched on the front surface through engraving work. The statues menhir of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans represent an important evidence of megalithism in Italy [2]. Structural and functional parallels can be traced with the anthropomorphic monoliths made in Lunigiana, most of which are preserved at the Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi in Pontremoli. Nevertheless, unlike most of the latter, the Aostan statues were discovered at the original site of placement. They constitute, therefore, an archaeological uniqueness.

Archaic and evolved types of the statues menhir

The statues menhir of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans can be classified into two main types [3]. Those of the Archaic style present only the shallow carving of the human figure’s essential traits. The slab reproduces the features of a small head on broad shoulders; the torso is tapered downward. Scanty details of clothing are often observed.

Stele 5 belongs to the so-called “archaic” type.
megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
A statue menhir with pendant, ” of transition” between the first and second styles. Notice the hint of a spiral bas-relief and the presence of a dagger under the belt.

The menhirs of the second style, known as ” evolved,” are characterized by a greater attention to detail, especially in the depiction of body parts. They have a wider outline and a characteristic “gendarme’s hat” head. The surface of the slabs was smoothed to create a bas-relief, outlining a well-defined face with nose and eyebrows, arms joined at right angles, clothing and jewelry. Weapons were also often engraved: daggers, bows and axes in geometric stylizations. In the evolved style it is possible to identify the sex of the subject represented, not by the physical attributes as in Pontremoli, but from the clothing and ornaments.

The pantheon of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

The statues menhir represent only the latest stage in a figurative evolution lasting hundreds of years. They are part of the same ritual strand characterized firstly by marker poles and after megaliths. This can be deduced by observing their sophisticated alignment: the slabs were arranged in rows, like the earlier evidence. The menhir statues were originally upright with the anthropomorphic figures facing in the same direction, although most were found on the ground. For this reason, it is more appropriate to use the expression “groups of statues menhir”, as they constituted a cultic manifestation as a whole. The reference to the cult of deified ancestors, in a sort of pantheon, seems more evident in this megalithic phase of the area. Further, the theory that the monoliths were arranged in correspondence with particular astronomical constellations is also reported.

The cult of the dead at the megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

At the end of the Copper Age, Saint-Martin-de-Corléans lost its function as a cult area dedicated to the worship of the people, gradually being used for funerary purposes. This is the period of dolmen tombs (Tomb II). The burial chamber, set on a triangular platform, contained multiple inhumations over the centuries. It was probably an exclusive tomb for members of a tribe and maintained its use for more than five hundred years. Tomb II hosted a number of artifacts belonging to a rich burial set, including some vases, brooches, and a bronze razor.

Among the numerous bone remains, however, the discovery of three very peculiar skulls is of particular note. They were the subject of a primitive form of medical-surgical intervention since they have perforations produced before death by drilling. Analysis of the bone tissue in two of these individuals shows calcification around the cranial lesion, indicating that they survived the treatment.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
The three skulls of Tomb II

A continuity of the sacred

The sacred character of the Saint-Martin-de-Corléans area continued in later periods. In protohistoric times the site was still used as a necropolis. Inhumation burials date back to the end of the 4th century BC, while some grave goods accompanying an incineration rite belong to the 1st century BC. With the foundation of Roman Augusta Praetoria (25 B.C.), the Saint-Martin-de-Corléans area hosted a large extra-urban necropolis with about 30 tombs. Archaeological findings testify to the use of rituals that involved incinerating the deceased directly in the grave, or depositing the bones inside urns.

An example of a tomb from the necropolis of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

The centuries following the Barbarian invasions are associated with a slow abandonment of the area’s cultic functions. However, the sacred character of the site continued through an ideal continuation of rituals, now Christian, during the Middle Ages. The church of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans represents the culmination of a millennial process of cultural evolution.

megalithic area of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans
Church of Saint-Martin-de-Corléans

The Romanesque building is mentioned in a document from 1176, Ecclesiam Sancti Martini de Coriano, and was probably built on the foundations of a pre-existing Roman villa. Unfortunately, the Medieval church was almost totally lost, as only its bell tower remains. The remaining part of the building was rebuilt in the 17th century.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] G. De Gattis, F. Martinet, G. Zidda, (a cura di), Area megalitica Saint-Martin-de-Corléans. La valorizzazione museografica, Documenti 14, Aosta 2020.

[2] Franco Mezzena, Le stele antropomorfe nell’area megalitica di Aosta, in Dei di pietra. La grande statuaria antropomorfa nell’Europa del III millennio a.C., catalogo della mostra, Ginevra-Milano 1998.

[3] G. Zidda, Aspetti iconografici delle stele antropomorfe di Aosta, in La Valle d’Aosta nel quadro della preistoria e della protostoria dell’arco alpino centro-occidentale, Atti della XXXI Riunione Scientifica Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria (Courmayeur 2-5 giugno 1994), Firenze 1997.

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