The Western regions of the British Isles and France share a wealth of prehistoric monuments. Quite how these standing stones, dolmens and even temples endured the religious hysteria that prevailed over most of the intervening periods of time is testament to their extraordinary presence in our landscapes.
In Britain, I am amongst many others who are slightly dismayed at the chosen method of managing historic cultural sites; the strimmed grass swaths and obligatory ‘garden’ shed / shop /heritage centre for the till, bears absolutely no relevance to the landscape as it was at the time these monuments and other heritage sites were used. I wish that more castle grounds, WWII sites etc., had gardens which represented the horticultural and farming at the time of occupation. And for prehistoric sites it would be nice to see woodland exactly representative in species mix and management as of the time.
In France for the major heritage sites the preservation of the gardens as they were, is considered one of the most important factors in interpreting the site and as such are now internationally recognised but the many small prehistoric sites benefitted from a simple fact that they were often on land of little value and thus the landscape as at the time has never needed to be exploited. It leaves a clear insight into why certain plants are associated with our ancient ancestors and their beliefs. Many Dolmens are situated on the great Paris Basin, which stretches from Poitiers in the West to Caen, East to Calais and South East to Saarbrücken, in Germany.
The huge quantity of prehistoric sites is probably the result of the relative ease, (compared to the heavy geology in West Britain), in using the light limestone, often already weathered into perfect flat rectangles. The limestone cliffs, usually no more than 25 metres high which form the banks of the slow, deep and rich rivers contain many caves and therefore an ideal habitat for humans to live in from prehistoric time’s right up to the present in some places. The geology even allows for pockets of deep rich soil – ‘swallow hole’ prehistoric allotments and even natural field boundaries and when a site is simply useless for any other purpose asides a natural solid base as a travelling route, the construction of a Dolmen is inevitable.
The surrounding ancient woodland to these sites can often be less than a metre high, but interspersed with trees which have found cracks or holes in the limestone plateau. Long lines of Ancient Oak and Small leaved Limes now form field boundaries, but are in fact ancient semi natural woodland following a fault or crevice in the limestone, and strange perfectly circular clumps of trees, enjoying the deep soil of a swallow hole, extend several metres above their neighbours, who are the same age and species, but bonsai trees and woodland, growth restricted due to a lack of soil and pruned by browsing mammals.
By matching times of relevance in the Celtic people’s calendar, (continued into the Christian calendar by way of hefty PR from the Church, altering the dates meaning to match biblical history), it is easy to understand how certain trees and plants become such important symbols to the Celts & Gauls of this great European plateau.
To stand in the landscape in May as the dwarf hawthorn creates a blanket of white blossom it’s relevance in the celebration of Beltane is evident. During the winter months, the evergreen and strongly scented Juniper is assured a place in the celebrating of nature by our ancestors. And the luminescence of Mistletoe on a grey day, when all other trees have lost their colour is enough to convince anyone of a magic to the plant which now almost defines plant mythology and the ancient druidic religion we have so little knowledge of and which is at risk of being completely based on myth.
As increasing consciousness of the relevance of plants and trees to our forefathers allows for increased funding for research, we as custodians of both the natural and cultural heritage of our land must take more care in connecting the two and thus archaeology becomes a vital element of forest knowledge. The mythology may have taken a stronger foothold than the true history, a history which is likely to be far more interesting as well as absolutely relevant in managing landscapes when faced with increased threats by climate change, which whilst not as rapid, had occurred during the times many of these monuments were part of everyday society.