Friday, September 20, 2013

The funereal snails

On March 26, 1872, Emile Rivière discovered a complete skeleton in the grotto of Cavillon, near Menton. This was not the first prehistoric skeleton found in the area, but this one had a particular importance: the way in which it had been buried was sufficiently sophisticated to answer a much-disputed question: did intentional burial already exist in the Paleolithic period? Notably, the skull was covered with over two hundred pierced sea-snails (Nassa neritea) which, along with stag canines, had been part of a fishnet-style headdress. An ankle bracelet of forty-one sea-snails was also found on a tibia bone. 

A few years later two children's bodies were found in the same area with almost a thousand of these same sea-snails, again pierced and probably used for the children's loincloths.

Sea-snails are not the same as the familiar culinary snail, which is a land mollusk  Nor is their presence here very mysterious, especially since it has been discovered that Rivière's find, long known as “the man of Menton”, was in fact a woman; shells were among the earliest form of jewelry.

More mysterious, however, are land snails found in various later tombs. Three dozen snail shells were found in a Gallo-Roman tomb at Pardines in Auvergne. Edouard Salin, the great researcher on the Merovingians, found three shells under the pelvis of a late Gallo-Roman skeleton under the St. Denis Basilica. Snails were found in twenty-six early Christian (II-Vth century) tombs at Beaulieu-sur-Mer; one tightly sealed tomb contained a “veritable deposit of helix aspera (garden snails)”. (The fact that these were Christian tombs may mean that the mollusk had a particular meaning in early Christian iconography; but pagan practices also survived even among some Christians.)

Early medieval pits at Carvin, in the Nord department, have been tentatively identified as funeral pits and include snails with the remains of shellfish and small rodents. At Noiron-sur-Gevrey, Salin noted numerous shells of varied types of snails found mixed with bones of small animals and frogs in funerary pits; in this case, these may have been the remains of funerary meals. But in the same area, a ring of snail shells set fifteen to twenty centimeters apart formed a ring around a Merovingian skeleton. Similar rings have been found in Merovingian tombs at Lorleau, Villey-Saint-Etienne, Bertheleming, Templeux-la-Fosse and Hardenthum.In the Ardennes, “veritable beds of snails” were found in Merovingian tombs; there and in the Aisne, about thirty snails surrounded some skulls.

Most touchingly, in one of six Gallo-Roman tombs of newborns at Lyons-la-Foret (in Normandy), Guyot and Dollfus found, on and beside one child's body, “nine snail shells... Two shells were found at neck level, at the base of the skull, the other six essentially symmetrical to either side of the thorax and pelvis and one between the lower limbs.” About thirty centimeters to the north of this tomb was a pile of almost one hundred shells in a pile about 20 centimeters in diameter. “These were no doubt brought intentionally, in relation to a funerary rite.” But what rite? And what was the significance of the various snails placed so carefully around certain skeletons? Or of those simply piled into mounds or beds?
This rite of the presence of snails may be related, either to a funereal meal, or to a symbolic significance: the abbé Martigny, following Salin, thinks it concerns a symbol of the Resurrection, the shell being the tomb which Man must one day leave.
One thing is certain: the parents who carefully placed – or had placed – nine snail shells at specific points around their newborn's body had, in their grief, a clear and heartfelt intention, expressed, in its way, as eloquently as the poignant epitaphs found on later graves. But we may never know what that was.


The "man" of Menton
Prehistoric ornament (in French)
Marc Groenen - Pour une histoire de la préhistoire: le Paléolithique

A. Guyot , M.A. Dollfus-Sépultures de nouveau-nés dans les fouilles gallo-romaines de Fleurheim à Lyons-la-Forêt (Eure) 

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