In the context of the expansion of the A75 highway, on the eastern outskirts of the Clermont-Ferrand urban area, a significant Neolithic site was excavated in 2019-2020 by a team from Inrap.

Located on the left bank of the Artière, a tributary of the Allier, the Pontcharaud site occupies the summit and slopes of a small sandy eminence overlooking the floodplains of the Limagne. To the south, the Puy de Crouel is a small volcano that may have served as a source of supply for the rocks used at the site, particularly the péperite.

At the site of a settlement first recognized in the 1980s during the construction of the A75 highway (excavated by G. Loison, and later by G. Vernet in Le Brézet), in addition to a significant occupation of the Second Iron Age, successive excavations have revealed a total of 285 Neolithic structures, including around fifty burials, which attest to about 4,000 years of occupation, during which domestic and funerary areas alternated or coexisted.

For this long period of occupation, 41 radiocarbon dates have already been obtained, mainly from bone samples taken from representative structures of the site, particularly burials. They are distributed into nine chronological groups covering almost the entire Neolithic period, with few gaps. This site thus represents a particularly rich sample for tracing the evolution of material culture, housing, and funerary practices in Auvergne.

Three dates prior to 6000 B.C., on animal bones extracted from hearths, attest to successive occupations during the Mesolithic. These events are very surprising, as no characteristic microlithic industry of this period was recognized during the excavation, likely because it was washed away by erosive phases.

Two dates before 5000 B.C. correspond to the Early Neolithic. The associated pottery, whose style is still poorly defined, can be attributed to the Franco-Iberian Cardial.

Between 4750 and 4500 B.C., a series of dates refer to hearths and pits associated with scarce detrital deposits. For this reason, these structures suggest temporary occupations rather than a long-term permanent settlement.

In the second half of the fifth millennium, finds are solely attributed to tombs, marking the abandonment of domestic purposes of the site in favor of exclusively funerary use. Within this set, which characterizes the Pontcharaud necropolis as it was recognized in the mid-1980s (excavation by G. Loison, Afan), a wide variety of funerary practices and architectures are observed, ranging from simple pit graves without furniture, which are the most numerous, to complex structures, sometimes accommodating several individuals, built in dry stone and certainly covered by a tumulus.

Among these structures were several cists, i.e., chests constructed and sealed with stone slabs. The pottery and dating are consistent with a Middle Neolithic contemporary to the periods of Saint-Uze and Southern Chasséen, although they do not fully share their style.

During the first half of the fourth millennium, domestic and funerary structures coexisted again. From the second half of the fourth millennium, the practice of cremation appears, attested by two graves. One of them is located on the perimeter of a large funerary enclosure, but is probably slightly older.

From the beginning of the third millennium, a new series of dates is linked to domestic structures (pits, hearths, silos), but also to new burials, showing the development of a large settlement, from which the funerary space is not clearly dissociated.

With a lower density of occupation, this situation persisted until the early and middle Bronze Age, when other funerary and domestic structures were identified.

From the mid-fifth millennium to the beginning of the next, the purpose of the site shifted essentially to funerary. A wide variety of practices and architectures are observed. Most of the observed graves were very simple and consisted of pit burials in which the deceased lay on their side in a curled position.

Among the radiocarbon-dated tombs, burial 5085, dated between 4456 and 4332 B.C., is one of the oldest. It seems to have been installed in an early phase of the development of this necropolis, emblematic of Early Middle Neolithic Auvergne. The body, accompanied by a large funerary assemblage, was deposited in a pit covered by a perishable material lid.

Above the deceased’s head was found a polished deer antler with a perforated handle. This is an uncommon object, difficult to interpret in functional terms, and may rather have a symbolic role, which some attribute to that of a scepter.

Against the chest were two long, polished and pointed rods made from deer metapodials. They are typically interpreted as punches for working hides, but in this case, they seem to have been used more as pins to fasten clothing.

A wild boar tusk was found hooked around the humerus above the left elbow. Although incomplete, it could have been a bracelet topped by a lost organic material of leather or plant fiber.

At the foot of the deceased was found an incomplete ceramic vessel. This vessel seems to have been sacrificed before being buried. The typology of this vessel is relatively common to the various contemporary stylistic facies of early regional Chasséen.

In the Early Middle Neolithic, the Pontcharaud necropolis shows various degrees of use of stone architecture.

This architecture can be discreet, as in one burial (5396), dated between 4355 and 4082 B.C., where a stone placed on edge seems to mark or protect the head of the deceased. This tomb also has a small ceramic jar and a deer antler object placed around the head.

Another burial (5413), dated between 4337 and 4065 B.C., shows a more imposing stone architecture. Its location is marked by a péperite slab that was collected more than a kilometer away (at the nearest point). This heavy, wide, and thick slab rests on two smaller stones placed on edge. Underneath was an individual without funerary assemblage, in the same position as their contemporaries.

Other graves are characterized by the presence of large horizontally placed slabs. Once this cover was removed, one of the burials (5130), dated between 4344 and 4061 B.C., shows slabs placed on edge to form a main and a secondary box, each of which contained an immature individual, without associated furniture. This type of slab-covered box architecture can be compared to the “Chamblandes cists,” which were mainly found south of Lake Geneva and in Valais at the same time.

This stone funerary architecture culminates in a burial (5201) containing three individuals, one of which has been dated between 4344 and 4061 B.C., strictly within the same chronological horizon as the rest of the necropolis, despite a very different design.

Presumably in a previous pit (although the sediments are too difficult to read to ensure it), a level floor was built with péperite slabs. With similar materials, a slightly vaulted perimeter wall was built on an oval surface 2.50 m long. This dry stone construction could have been covered by a tumulus leveled by agricultural erosion. This use of dry stone is reminiscent of some of the great funerary monuments of southern France, especially those of Caramany, in the eastern Pyrenees.

To the north of the site, a large circular enclosure could not be directly dated, but it marks the location of two osseous cremation deposits.

In a box made of limestone slabs, two receptacles used as ossuary vessels were closed by other overturned receptacles. They contained the incinerated remains of two individuals. The larger funerary urn is a spherical vessel of a very special type, decorated with two opposed twin knobs and two vertical cords. These vessels, termed gynecomorphic, have been compared in Switzerland, in the Cortaillod region. This example, with its stylized breasts and arms, can be termed anthropomorphic. Like another urn in this tomb, it was “sacrificed” by a pick blow between the breasts.

The other incineration deposit in this sector is mixed with the slabs forming the crown of the circular enclosure (5278), so it is unknown whether it predates it or was added to it. It is limited to a small heap of a few large fragments of charred human bone covered with an overturned careened bowl of Chasséen style.

During the excavation, an enclosure (5278) formed by a ring of slabs of marly limestone arranged radially around a circle about 18 meters in diameter was detected.

On the outside, in a circle about 25 meters in diameter, a series of irregular ditches could have served to extract material for a low tumulus, now eroded. In the center, a group of blocks of limestone defines a rectangular space approximately 3 x 2 m, which could be the last vestige of a very eroded burial, in which no human remains were found.

It was here, less than a meter from the center of the enclosure, where three fragments of a long perforated bipedal axe of exceptional craftsmanship and finish were discovered. These prestigious objects come from Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where they were made in serpentinite during the Horgen period, between 3,300 and 3,000 years ago (Late Neolithic).

The finding in this place of this deliberately broken and possibly burned object is certainly not due to chance and provides a terminus post quem for the enclosure, which at least remained frequented, respected, and perhaps even venerated at the end of the Neolithic.

The question of its founding date remains unanswered, but the presence in this place of regional ceramics from the Late Chasséen, in the form of a contemporary ground level of the cremations, could date it to the first half of the fourth millennium.

Comparative elements of this type of circular funerary structure must be sought again to the south, for example in Provence, at the “Château-Blanc” of Ventabren (Bouches-du-Rhône). However, the compared examples show clear differences with the Pontcharaud enclosure, both in terms of the structure’s configuration and the style of associated pottery.

At the end of the third and beginning of the second millennium, a new significant settlement developed, located north of the cleared area and only observed in a narrow trench.

This occupation was characterized by the presence of silos, some of which contained sacrificed cattle skeletons. North of the excavated area, one of these silos was marked on the surface by two standing granite millstones. Their fill revealed three buried individuals resting on cattle quarters.

Two individuals seem to have been deposited simultaneously initially, and the last one after a lapse of time resulting in the accumulation of about thirty centimeters of sediment. In the basin of this last one, an arrowhead with a peduncle and fins corresponds to the obtained dating, between 2888 and 2632 B.C.. Its position in the abdomen could indicate the cause of death.

At the confluence of influences from the north, east, and apparently closer to the south, the Pontcharaud site bears witness to a long period of Neolithic occupation, alternating between isolated dwellings, isolated burials, and mixed occupations.

Funerary practices and gestures show a great variety, which will have to be analyzed in detail to trace the history of this emblematic site of the Neolithic of Auvergne.


Sources

INRAP (Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives)


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