My fascination for archaeology began when I was five after finding a fossilised gastropod in our Gloucestershire garden. Had I not mucked around during my school years, I can only fantasise what my life might have been like as a female Indiana Jones
Fast forward to 1981. I moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands, UK, and found myself surrounded by archaeological treasures. Dolmens, menhirs, and La Cotte de St Brelade, fine examples of Jersey’s rich history dating back over 250,000 years, so it took me no time at all for my archaeological geekiness to resurface.
Jersey is the largest and the most southerly of all the Channel Islands, lying in the Bay of St. Malo, which is sheltered between the Cotentin and Brittany Coasts, just 25km west of Normandy.
The earliest evidence of human activity here dates to about 250,000 years ago, but Jersey was not always an island. Until around 6800 BC, Jersey was connected to mainland Europe, so it looked very different than it does today, as it was connected to mainland France by a land bridge. A vast undulating coastal plain, gouged by valleys and a complex networks of rivers.
The land was populated by herds of wild horses, reindeer, mammoths, and nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers, who roamed beyond the River Aa into was what is now northern France. The rocky plateau that would become Jersey rose out of the surrounding grassland, which is thought to have happened during the interglacial periods of ice melt and sea-level rise around 4000 BC when Jersey was cast adrift from mainland France.
La Cotte de St Brelade is one of the most important Ice Age sites in Europe. A natural arch in a granite cliff, which provided shelter for the earliest known occupation of Jersey, by a Hominin species.
In 1881, stone tools were discovered there, but it wasn’t until 1910, that systematic excavations began when the Jersey-born anthropologist, Robert R. Marett, worked on the site for four years and during that time he recovered teeth which, at the time, were believed to have belonged to one Neanderthal person.
The teeth Marett found were dated in 2013 using new techniques, and this analysis put them at between 100,000 and 47,000 years old. However, those teeth were in the news again earlier this week after new research indicates they belonged to two individuals, who may also have had modern human ancestry.
Two after the teeth were discovered at La Cotte, a fragment of a Neanderthal child’s skull was also found there.
In the 1930’s amateur archaeologists from the Société Jersiaise, led by Jesuit priest Father Burdo, started recording the findings of this prestigious site.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Cambridge University, led by Professor C.M. B. McBurey, carried out significant excavations of the site and found important examples of Pleistocene mammals’ remains, including a pile of bones and teeth of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Prince Charles, as a student, took part in these excavations. Their findings were published (McBurey and Callow 2014).
Archaeologists also uncovered the bones of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino arranged in a pile as if the meat had been placed in cold storage. In 1980, Katherine Scott published an article about the hunting methods used by Neanderthals at La Cotte. She argues that Neanderthals drove the mammoths off the nearby cliffs, a theory that has since been disputed.
In 2010, excavations were renewed at La Cotte, by a multi-disciplinary team from British Institutions including UCL, The British Museum the University of Southampton and University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids.
Why did Neanderthals keep returning to La Cotte de St. Brelade?
In the past, Neanderthals were depicted as reactive animals and peripheral scavengers, but new findings suggest otherwise. From evidence found a La Cotte and elsewhere, Neanderthals had the intelligence to fashion tools, make fire, bury the dead and, maybe, even care for the sick.
It is also suggested that they had the social organisation to drive mammoths and butcher them, but why did they keep returning to La Cotte?
During the 200,000±, years hominids persistently revisited La Cotte. Sea levels were lower than they are today, so the site would have provided not only shelter but a commanding view of what would then have been sparsely wooded open landscapes; terrain long-since claimed by the sea.
Many of the Neanderthal tools found in Jersey were made of flint, a stone not found on the island. Jersey is made up of igneous and metamorphic rocks. So, the site could have been used solely as a strategic hunting location, as sedimentation at the site suggests a variable climate-driven accumulation, which may explain why Neanderthal occupation at La Cotte at times, was abandoned altogether.
So, if Neanderthals were so intelligent, why did they disappear? The answer may well lie with ‘those teeth’, and that they interbred with our own species.
A wide variety of archaeological remains survive above and below ground in Jersey, along its shoreline, and within its waters. The Violet Bank site in Jersey is a type of coastal zone known as an intertidal reef. It is part-exposed during the low spring tide, which has given archaeological teams a four-hour window to dig while the tide is out. Sixteen miles from La Cotte, it is somewhere stone tools, and mammoth remains, have also been found over the years.
Around 9000 BC the Palaeolithic period ended, and the Neolithic began. Fundamental shifts took place, both climatically and within human society. Key to this was the promotion and expansion of human-favoured plant and animal species. Archaeological evidence demonstrates significant increase of numerous species during this period in Jersey.
Jersey was continuously settled during early Neolithic times. The nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic period gave way to settled agriculture. As domesticated animals dispersed across the world, there is significant evidence that Neolithic farmers in Jersey cultivated cereals, such as wheat and barley, and herded cows, pigs and sheep, while continuing to use wild resources.
Clay modelling, in the form of pottery, radically changed people’s ability to cook, store and eat food, and bear water. It was also used for religious rituals.
Over 6,000 years ago, the island’s Neolithic farmers, believed certain parts of the island had spiritual significance, which they marked by building stone monuments, known as dolmens and passage graves, many of which are free to access.
Jersey has one of the finest concentrations of Megalithic monuments outside the Carnac area of Brittany, which is indicative of the economic and social sophistication, as well as the religious beliefs, of the island’s Neolithic society.
A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, which usually consist of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone or ‘table, and most date from the early Neolithic (4000–3000 BC), and were sometimes covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. Wikipedia.
A menhir, also known as a standing stone, orthostat, or lith, is a large man-made upright stone, typically dating from the European middle Bronze Age. They can be found solely as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. The size of a menhir varies considerably, but they are generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. Wikipedia.
La Hougue Bie is a Neolithic passage grave and is one of the world’s ten oldest buildings. It was excavated in 1924. ‘It is an exceptional cruciform passage grave intact within its tumulus.’ (Baal et al. 1925). It was re-examined between 1991 and 1995 (Patton et al. 1999).
Les Varines is a c 15,000-year-old Magdalenian hunter-gatherer camp, where archaeologists have found over 3000 stone tools. Between 2014 and 2018, ten plaquettes made by the Magdalenians were discovered there, and they could be the earliest evidence of human art in the British Isles.
La Pouquelaye de Faldouet was built around 6,000 years ago and is a 5m long passage grave leading into an unusual double chamber. This capstone weighs approximately 24 tonnes and comes from a rhyolite outcrop. The main chamber is open and surrounded by a series of small stone cists (boxes) while the end chamber is covered by a massive 24-ton capstone. The site was first recorded in 1682 and was excavated three times before 1910. Human remains were found in the lists, and finds from the chamber include pottery vessels, two polished stone axes and two stone pendants.
Le Couperon is a Neolithic dolmen in the parish in St. Martin, Jersey. It is an eight-metre (26-foot) long capstone chamber, originally covered by a long mound. It was surrounded by a ring of eighteen outer stones, known as peristaliths.
La Sergenté is a Neolithic Passage Grave in St.Brelade, built some 6500 years ago and consists of a circular chamber of drystone construction with a short passage leading into it, which is thought to have been covered by a beehive stone roof.
Les Mont de Grantez is a large passage of large, upright granite blocks and dry stone walling leading into an oval chamber. On the north side is a small side chamber. The passage and side chamber retain their capstone. Spotting History.
La Hougue des Géonnais – Neolithic passage grave in St. Ouen.
The Broken Menhir is a menhir at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, broken in prehistory and now restored with the use of a buttress. Excavated in 1922 where the lower part was found to be supported by trigstones.
The Ossuary is a Chalcolithic (from the Copper Age) cist constructed of five blocks below a low mound with a diameter of 9m. The chamber 1.8m x 0.9m contained the remains of at least twenty individuals though none were articulated. It is believed that the chamber was used to deposit the bones of the dead after the flesh had rotted away.
Pottery and flint scapers were also found during the excavation in 1922.
The Little Menhir is a Neolithic granite block at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, standing 2.3m above the surface.
The Great Menhir is a 2m high Neolithic granite block at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, which was re-erected in 1922.
La Table des Marthes is Neolithic flat granite slab at the western end of the railway walk.
Les Trois Rocques is comprised of three flat, squat Neolithic stones, spread over 15m. There were no supporting trig stones of significance when it was excavated in both 1913 and 1933.
These are just some of Jersey’s archaeological treasures, which keep my Indiana Jones fantasy alive. They are a constance source of fascination and by revisiting these built to last megaliths, from a bygone age, they speak volumes about the people who created them.