Les Journées du Patrimoine fell this weekend in France, when historic monuments and sites throughout the country are open, many for free. I’d like to mark them with an account of a visit that has been on my bucket list for several years: the prehistoric site at Filitosa, on Corsica, from which we recently returned. It was our fifth visit to the Ile de Beauté and there’s still more to see.
This rich and mysterious site came to light only in 1948. It sits at the bottom of the Taravo Valley a few kilometres before the river throws itself into the Golfe di Valinco. It consists of a series of 16 granite statue-megaliths, or sculpted standing stones, carved in the likeness of warriors; fragments of 32 further statues; a vast enclosure; three prehistoric towers; and a village of stone huts.
Local farmers, the Cesari, owned the land. They knew about the huge blocks of stone, but were unaware of their significance. Dorothy Carrington evocatively described her visit to the site in 1948, during her first visit to Corsica, in her wonderful Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica. Subsequently, archaeologist Roger Grosjean excavated there from 1954 and revealed the full majesty of the site and the megaliths.
People occupied Filitosa between the 6th millennium and the 1st millennium BC, living mainly from hunting and fishing at the start. From the 4th millennium BC agriculture developed and the population increased. The megalithic movement swept through Europe, notably in places such as Brittany, but also in Corsica. The island counts 73 sculpted megaliths, around 40% of all the statue-megaliths in France. The art of megalith carving developed in particular at Filitosa, which had its own quarry of granite blocks conveniently nearby.
Archaeologists have identified several distinct phases in the development of megalithic sculpture. In the first phase, they were simply standing stones. By the fourth phase, they had developed into recognisable human forms and faces.
The statue known as Filitosa IX is the most accomplished example of the fourth phase.
No one really knows what their function was at Filitosa, and various theories have been put forward. The earlier Neolithic megaliths could have been phallic symbols designed to stimulate the fertility of the land. The later Bronze Age megaliths, with carved swords, daggers and helmets, could have represented the people’s own warrior chieftains or their enemies.
By around 1300 BC, three new structures appeared at Filitosa, which Roger Grosjean christened torre. The structures were circular, between six and eight metres high and built on a platform. While excavating the central structure, Grosjean found numerous menhirs incorporated into the walls. Some had been broken up. This was evidence either of the wholesale rejection of the previous megalithic culture by the inhabitants; or of the occupation of the site by invaders.
Roger Grosjean interpreted it as the latter. He believed that the previous inhabitants made likenesses of their enemies, the torréens, who were probably sea-going invaders, to imprison their power and prevent them taking the site. When the torréens did take Filitosa, they broke up the images of themselves and used them to construct their own religious monuments, the torre.
No one will ever know for sure. The site guards its secrets.
The museum at Filitosa is pathetic and there is little detailed explanation of the exhibits. They are building a new museum, but its opening seems to have been delayed until 2015. It’s best to look at the site itself first and to go early in the morning to avoid the busloads of tourists. One’s enjoyment is slightly marred by the intrusive interactive pillars spewing out the history in various languages and emitting music that no prehistoric person would have made or heard.
However, these things don’t ultimately spoil the magic of this haunting place. When I look into the face of this prehistoric warrior, captured for posterity, I feel the connection with its sculptor over the millennia.
This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance blog link up. The link below takes you to a series of posts about many aspects of France by regular Francophile bloggers.
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