The Neolithic period on the islands of Brittany (France): insular communities and interaction with the mainland
This article considers the economic organisation of the first agro-pastoral societies of the islands of Brittany (Figure 1), drawing on the results of recent research (Audouard 2014). Key questions are concerned with whether the resources of these islands—both terrestrial and marine—required lifestyle adaptations.
Did the population live within the constraints of their island environment or did they seek to overcome these limitations through the dynamics of contact and exchange?
These questions are addressed through the evidence of lithic industries from several of the islands. The specifics of raw material supplies, and the characteristics of the lithic industries, are systematically compared with data from nearby mainland sites. This approach identifies the presence or absence of insular particularities, and then assesses the degree to which island populations were integrated into long-distance trade networks of raw materials. Finally, the lithic information is put into the context of other archaeological evidence (e.g. ceramics, mortuary monuments).
The presence of imported materials (such as the ‘Cinglais’ flint or the Turonian flint of Grand Pressigny; Figure 2) on some of the islands demonstrates the existence of contacts between the island communities and the mainland. Nevertheless, these imports always occurred in limited proportions, comprising only around one per cent of the total lithic assemblage. The local abundance of coastal flint pebbles therefore seems to have met most of the communities’ needs on the islands.
Nonetheless, some differences between the islands can be discerned. The islands of southern Brittany appear more integrated within mainland exchange networks than the islands of the Iroise Sea to the west of the peninsula. This situation changes over time: it seems to begin during the middle Neolithic but increases at the end of the Neolithic. Moreover, if we look at the distribution of the flint of Grand Pressigny, which was a major lithic material exchanged during the Late Neolithic (Ihuel 2009), the differences between islands are striking (Figure 3). The geographical distance separating the islands of the Iroise Sea from the sedimentary basins bordering the Armorican Massif may provide an initial explanation of this situation.
The specific case of Belle-Île-en-Mer
When we look at the distribution of the Grand Pressigny flint, Belle-Île stands out as a result of the discovery of some 21 flint artefacts from sites on the island. This fact is not the only pecularity of the biggest island of Brittany. For Belle-Île also presents a distinctive situation in relation to mortuary structures: no passage graves or gallery grave structures have so far been identified there (Batt & Kayser 1989). Instead, the island has a large number of tumuli, which are particularly concentrated towards the north coast and on watersheds, although it is impossible to place these monuments into a chronological series due to a lack of excavation. The absence of passage graves or gallery grave structures on Belle-Île contrasts with other islands, for example Groix, and this situation has been attributed to a distinct Belle-Île tradition (e.g. Batt & Kayser 1989). Nonetheless, given the lack of archaeological investigation of the tumuli on Belle-Île, we must remain cautious about identifying such a distinctive cultural package.
Does the lithic data suggest that the islands of Britanny were isolated? Certainly in terms of geography, but not culturally speaking. Although imports were always of restricted quantities, the characteristics of the lithic industries are the same on the islands as they are on the neighbouring mainland. There is no evidence for island-specific lithic industries from the beginning of the Neolithic to the beginning of the Bronze Age. This situation emphasises the strength of interaction that occurred between the inhabitants of the mainland coast and the islands’ populations. Both of these groups are likely to have considered themselves as part of the same wider community—the ‘people of the sea’ (Rainbird 2007)—linked across a zone of high mobility.
I would like to thank: Marie-Yvane Daire, Grégor Marchand, Benjamin Gehres, Yvan Pailler, Jean-Marc Large, Gérald Musch, Laboratory Archéosciences CReAAH UMR 6566, University of Rennes 1.
- AUDOUARD, L., 2014. Les économies préhistoriques dans les domaines insulaires de la façade Manche-Atlantique de la France, de la fin du Mésolithique au début de l’âge du Bronze. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Université de Rennes 1.
- BATT, M. & O. KAYSER. 1989. Prospection archéologique de Belle-Île en Mer (Morbihan). Bulletin de l’A.M.A.R.A.I. 2: 21–26.
- IHUEL, E. 2009. De la circulation des lames à la circulation des poignards. Mutation des productions lithiques spécialisées dans l'ouest de la France du Ve au IIIe millénaire. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Université de Paris X-Nanterre.
- RAINBIRD, P. 2007. The archaeology of islands. New York: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511619007
- Lorena Audouard
University of Rennes 1, CReAAH (Centre de Recherche en Archéologie, Archéosciences, Histoire), UMR 6566, France (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)