Just off the D901, down a narrow road hugged by tall hedges, is a fairy mansion guarded by goblins who store their treasure in one of its corners. Or so the legend says.
The fairies and goblins have not been seen for some centuries, but it is well known that the big stone above the North entrance wobbles near Christmastime. If you happen to be nearby on Christmas Eve don’t be surprised to see it spin three times. No-one can remember why and to be honest in recent years it seems to have lost the will. Perhaps the deep excavations of 1969 and 1972 upset it.
What we do know about the allée couverte at Bretteville
Bretteville’s allée couverte, covered walkway, was built 4000 years ago using local stone, a triassic conglomerate rock created 200 million years earlier from lots of little stones. It looks a bit like concrete. The allée is just over 16 metres long, made with slabs of rock weighing several tons.
The architect had an eye for style and included a single pinkish slab of granite probably sourced some distance away. The granite still has smoothly bored and unfairy-like holes, traces of attempts to split it.
Lying north to south as allée couverte usually do, the floor is paved and the interior divided into two. And that is all anyone really knows about the Allée Couverte at Bretteville.
You can choose to believe local legends that say these stones were pulled here by enchantment, or the archaeologists; sensible, educated people who have been declaring their own sensible, educated opinions since the 19th century.
The first person to publish a report on stones was Louis Ragonde. Louis was a newspaperman and member of the Société des Antiquaires de Normandie founded in 1824. After describing the stones in an 1833 article he added them to the History of Cherbourg started by Jean-Thomas Voisin-La-Hougue and published after Jean’s death in 1835. Louis called the stones ‘Cist-Vean’ apparently a Breton term meaning wobbly stones.
Louis was sure the flat top was for ‘religious trials’.
Debris of our ancestors
A description of the site by Henri Menut and republished in the Bulletin de la Société Normande d’études péhistoriques et historiques of 1895 says how it was littered with the debris of our ancestors:
“In 1879, called upon to carry out important earthworks at Bretteville, six kilometers from Cherbourg, I found the first vestiges of the Stone Age. Encouraged by this success I continued to research this for several years.”
Henri went on to describe “residues of manufacturing waste (flint chippings) in vast quantities” and “debris of bones deeply altered and split in lengths”. He also hazarded some insights into the location as being “admirably situated, defended to the right and left by streams… the raw materials (rocks found in these old river valleys) were within reach of the workers.”
Henri was convinced it was a burial site. He may be right, but the bones would have been later additions as the soil here is very acidic, no bones could survive it for 4000 years.
Restoration and a recent excavation
Archaeologists continued to potter about the allée couverte for the next hundred years. A more formal excavation took place in 1969 and again in 1972 by a team led by R. Lemière and R. Verveur who set about up-righting great slabs that had toppled and sunk into the ground. The dig unearthed a few fragments of Neolithic life; flints, a vase, some pieces of simple jewellery. These precious relics are now in the Muséum Emmanuel Liais, Cherbourg.
They were lucky to find anything at all. Slabs of rock from many Neolithic sites around Cherbourg were raided in the 19th century to strengthen the new harbour. Early archaeologists in the 19th century may not have had the best techniques, but they did a lot to save irreplaceable heritage.
Were the allée couverte tombs for our ancestors? If so what beliefs demanded these near impossible structures? We will probably never know.
But we may see you at the Bretteville allée couverte one Christmas eve, just in case…
The allée couverte is in a small field, set back from the road behind a gravel car park. Entrance is free.
A review, with photos and drawings of the 1972 excavation was published in 2000 by H. Lepaumier, E. Ghesquière and C. Marcigny and can be read (French) in Persee.fr here.
Find more Megaliths in the Manche on this (French) website based on surveys between 1984 and 1991.
Find out more about Neolithic Normandy in our post ‘A walk through Neolithic Normandy, near Lithaire’.