Surviving menhirs

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Surviving menhirs

This article by Norman Rybot was first published in the 1934 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

However many menhirs may have at one time existed in Jersey, only eight now stand upright in their original positions.

The menhirs

Archaeologists, intent on the examination of prehistoric burial places, paid little or no attention to them. Lieutenant S P Oliver for instance, in his report On the Prehistoric Remains of the Channel Islands, (1879), makes only two references to them, as follows :

  • "In an orchard belonging to Mr Le Jeune close by the above mentioned cromlech (Mont Ube) there is a small menhir, known to the neighbourhood under the name of La Pierre Blanche, which calls for no especial notice".
  • "There is some rumour of a trilithon called the Pre des Trois Roches having existed close to the sea at St Ouen; but I could find no trace of it".

Mr J Sinel accounted for five erect menhirs when writing his Prehistoric Times and Men of the Channel Islands, (1913) namely La Dame Blanche at Samares, Les Trois Rocques near St Ouen's Pond and the Little Menhir in the Lower Quenvais; and the credit of recognising this last named stone as a menhir, is due to him.

Since 1921 I have added three to the list and have been present at the examinations of the soils in which the eight stand.

The results of the excavations are set down here; but I make no attempt to interpret them. I have, however, ventured to theorise on one point, namely the relative ages of the peat and menhirs in St Ouen's Bay. Here is a list of the menhirs which now stand erect in their original sites:

  • La Dame Blanche, Blanche Pierre, or Ivy Stone of Samares
  • The Great Menhir in the Upper Quenvais
  • The Little Menhir in the Lower Quenvais
  • The Broken Menhir in the Lower Quenvais
  • Les Trois Rocques near St Ouen's Pond
  • The White Menhir, 200 yards south of Les Trois Rocques

La Dame Blanche

La Dame Blanche, Blanche Pierre, or Ivy Stone of Samares is a block of diorite brought inland from the neighbouring coast. It is the finest surviving menhir in the island, but though marked on the Ordnance map, its secluded position prevents it from being as well known as it deserves to be.

Last autumn the tenant of Ivy Stone Farm decided to prepare the field in which the menhir stands for the cultivation of tomatoes. To effect this change the orchard had to be destroyed and the trees removed. By January the trees lay ready to be carted away, root and branch, from the craters which had been dug round them.

A chance visitor happened to observe that in a crater 12 feet south-west of the menhir a mass of limpet shells had been disturbed, and he had the good sense to report this matter to the Museum.

With the permission of the tenant, Mr J P Le Masurier, excavations illustrated were made by Mr A D B Godfray and Father Christian Burdo. It would appear that the soil was sparse when the depression for the reception of the limpet shells was made, and the hole for the insertion of the base of the menhir dug; for it is not likely that the stones surrounding the shell depression would have been buried below their own depth. As for the menhir, it may be inferred from our other examples that its own weight, assisted by trig stones, would keep it in a vertical position. A deep burial was therefore unnecessary.

The presence of the trough of limpet shells is a puzzle. The excavators probed the soil all round the menhir on a radius of 12 feet and found nothing, nor did other excavations within and without that radius produce any result. The trough contained thousands of shells all crammed together and as far as we could judge they were all of the same species, Patella athletica. There was no pottery or implement among them.

It has been asserted that the polished tip of the menhir is due to vitrification by lightning. This is a matter which awaits expert examination.

Great Menhir

The Great Menhir in the Upper Quenvais is a granite monolith standing rather more than half way down the hillside, 350 yards north-west of the Pavilion of the La Moye Golf Club. Its position, as well as those of the menhirs near the Ossuary, was fixed by a Royal Engineer surveyor in 1922. It stands on or near the 125 feet contour line. When I first observed it, it had fallen in a westerly direction. The Societe Jersiaise decided to re-erect it and the work was carried out in May 1922.

The soil and sand on the hillside here are of sufficient depth to give root-hold to gorse, bracken, brambles and coarse grass and the gravelly depression in which the menhir was trigged is about 30 inches deep.

No stratigraphical evidence was obtained during the operations of reseating, nor were any fragments of pottery or flint found. The texture of this granite pillar varies considerably. Its summit is coarse and disintegrating, but the west and north faces are fine and extremely smooth - a smoothness which may have been increased by sand blast.

Little Menhir

The Little Menhir in the Lower Quenvais was first recorded by J Sinel but, prior to August 1921 had not been excavated. On the 24th of that month, with Major Godfray doing most of the spade work, a thorough examination was made. The results proved to be of importance, for at a level of 20 inches below the existing surface, an old land surface was found in which a fragment of pottery, a good end-scraper of flint, a flat muller of crystalline sandstone and a broken anvil stone were lying. These objects are now on view in the Museum of the Societe Jersiaise.

The trig stones were, with the exception of one, granite, the exception being a piece of Archaean mudstone, derived from the immediate neighbourhood. Though the west face of this menhir must have been fully exposed for a long period of time to the winds and gales which bore in the recent sand deposits, we did not detect any trace of sand blast upon it.

Broken Menhir

The existence of an old land surface disclosed by the excavation of this menhir confirms the evidence derived from the excavation of the Little Menhir. This block, which is a mass of granite full of natural fissures, broke and its upper portion, fell onto the surface in which the stump is fixed; after which the winds covered both with a layer of sand.

Thus the breaking of this menhir prior to the incoming of the last sand-flow was a fortunate mishap, for it settles the question of the old land surface in St Ouen's Bay as well as the depth to which the local menhirs of the period were normally buried.

It is evident that the technique employed in the erection of the Dame Blanche, the Great Menhir, the Little Menhir and the Broken Menhir is identical. In each case the menhir was lowered into a shallow depression and trigged, and the stone, once raised to a vertical position, was held there by its own weight.

The Broken Menhir was excavated on 20 June 1922 and set up again, an operation which necessitated the insertion of a dowel pin and the addition of a buttress of masonry.

Trois Rocques

The Trois Rocques are shown on the Ordnance map to the south-east of St Ouen's Pond. They stand on the 50 feet contour in a flat meadow known as Le Pre des Trois Rocques, the property of Lieut-Bailiff R Malet de Carteret,Seigneur de St Ouen.

This group of menhirs possesses certain peculiarities. First, the stumpy and massive blocks are, as local menhirs go, abnormal. Second, all three stand in an area liable to periodic inundation. Third, they are not trigged and, fourth, they are all bedded in the latest deposit of blown sand. There is thus a possibility that these stones were set up long after the era of the master menhir masons had passed away.

A and B both have flat bases. A has remained erect owing to its low centre of gravity, but B is slowly falling towards the west. C, which had fallen, is a slab measuring seven feet four inches from top to base, five feet in width and only 15 to 20 inches thick. C is now held upright by trig stones, having been re-erected early in the present century. One of the workman who assisted at that job was with me when we examined the Trois Rocques on 13 November, 1933, and he stated that when C was re-erected, stones were brought in a hand-cart from a neighbouring boundary wall and placed under it, there being none there before.

The general form of A and B suggests that they were originally part of a boss-shaped outcrop on the plateau of Les Landes, rather more than two miles from their present site. Their upper ends have been roughly tapered by smashing off chunks from the edges. The sand in which they stand yielded nothing but a few beach pebbles, some of which were broken. Below and round the bases of A and B were soft concretionary lumps of iron-pan, formed round the roots of vegetation which had penetrated down the sides of the menhirs.

The line labelled "Old Land Surface" is of unconsolidated iron-pan and the sand under it has an ochreous colour.

In closing this note on the Trois Rocques mention must be made of certain natural inequalities on the flat summit of A. Three of these, on the southern portion of the summit, are more or less circular and have been noted as cup-marks. The other depressions, which are of irregular shape, have been dismissed as of a natural origin though in some instances their bowls are as smooth as those of the so-called cup-marks.

White Menhir

The White Menhir, was first recorded as a probable menhir early in 1933. It is a somewhat inconspicuous object set in a low earth ridge bordering a shallow field drain, about 200 yards south by west of the Trois Rocques.

Its western face bears traces of whitewash. Its base, which is trigged, lies less than a foot below the surface of the soil. Isolated, it serves no purpose either as a boundary stone or as a landmark, also being of unhewn granite, and two miles away from the nearest granite area, it seems reasonable to include it in our list of standing menhirs.

From tip to base it measures five feet seven inches. Its maximum width is two and a half feet and its thickness about one foot.

Changed coastline

It has been shown that the Little and Broken Menhirs are both seated in a relatively ancient sand deposit lying beneath an "old land surface". What is the age of this deposit and how came it there? In the drawing the west coast of Jersey is shown elevated 25 feet above its present level. In the centre of the map a lagoon will be seen formed by streams descending from the plateau to the east and barred from exit to the sea by a line of shingle and sand dunes.

This is no uncommon physical feature in Jersey, for it existed or still exists in the marshes of Grouville, Samares, St Helier, Beaumont and St Ouen. In each instance the outlet of drainage from the hills was or is dammed by dunes.

To the east of the lagoon is an area of low lying woodland, liable to flooding, in which large trees grew; even as large trees now grow close behind the northern dunes of Grouville Bay.

Relics prove that Bos longifrons wallowed in the mud of the lagoon and that Neolithic man found a happy hunting ground in its neighbourhood. A gradual submergence of the land, however, led to the bursting of the great outer dam, the scouring of the lagoon, the destruction of the woodland and the inblowing of the dunes, and I suggest it is this latter movement that caused the accumulation of the "ancient sand" deposit.

If this surmise is correct, the Ossuary and its menhirs must be ascribed to the Bronze Age rather than to the Neolithic, and the coastline then existing should be taken to approximate to the present one.

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