Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/The Earliest Writing in France


THE ancient Celts and Gauls of France had no real letters. A few Celtiberian pieces of money bear characters belonging to the Phœnician and Carthaginian alphabets. In Cisalpine Gaul we find Gallic written in ancient Italian characters. The Greeks, when they founded Massilia and spread themselves along the Mediterranean coast of France, brought their language and writing into the country. The Gauls took advantage of this, and many Gallic inscriptions in Greek characters occur scattered through the south of France, among much more numerous inscriptions in the Greek language and character.

When the Romans came, the Latin alphabet rapidly took the place of the Greek, and the few Gauls that continued faithful to the old tongue used Latin characters in engraving the inscriptions they have left us. Similar changes took place in Gallic pieces of money. Excepting the Celtiberian coins with their Semitic legends and characters, which are found only in a very limited district in the southwest of France, Gallic coins, when they have characters upon them, may be classified as those with Greek and those with Latin legends. The former are very abundant in the south of France, and extend, growing more rare, as we go on into the center and north. Gallic coins with legends in Roman characters gradually become more numerous, and were general after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Cæsar, some of the Gallic populations having only begun to coin money during the earlier period of the Roman occupation.

There are some evidences of the use of a symbolical and hieroglyphical writing before alphabetical writing. On some of the megalithic monuments, principally in Morbihan, stones are found bearing incised engravings, and sometimes sculptures in relief. Are the engravings simply ornamental motives, have they a symbolical meaning, or are they hieroglyphic emblems? Opinions are divided. The supports of the large and handsome dolmen of the little island of Gavrinis, Morbihan, are filled with engraved lines running into one another and conforming to the shape of the stone or to its composition—all the siliceous and consequently very hard parts being free from them. This indicates a simple ornamentation or decoration executed without any special plan made in advance, according to the nature and form of the stone worked upon. Yet, among the lines of the apparently fanciful ornament a number of polished stone hatchets are very distinctly represented. In all the other dolmens the carvings are much less numerous and not so close. Sometimes they are distributed around, and sometimes they are isolated. Among them we remark the frequent repetition of some forms in groups or singly, which suggest the thought of signs with a determined sense. Upon a large support of the dolmen of the Petit-Mont at Arzan (Morbihan) there are at the lower left hand three crosses, a sign of frequent occurrence on the megalithic carvings. Above these are two very wide open U's. Seidler sees in these signs letters of the Libyan alphabet, the cross corresponding to C, and the other sign to M. Some persons have further thought they could distinguish an Egyptian letter in the cross. Taking a more general view of the question, Letourneau[1] has tried to prove that the sculptures on the megaliths are inscriptions, and the engraved signs correspond to letters of the ancient alphabets, most probably Semitic. Adrien de Mortillet answered that the thought of writing involved arrangement, and no arrangement could be predicated of the signs.

A short time afterward, Adrien de Mortillet, in a paper on the Figures sculptured on the Megalithic Monuments of France, proved that the figures are more or less rude designs representing a well determined series of objects. Thus the U's, with branches very widely separated, represent boats, and are emblems of migrations by sea; the crosses are shipmasters' staffs, or insignia of chiefs similar in character to bishops' crosses. The polished hatchet is frequently figured, and often with a handle, and is the emblem of labor, or, more probably, of combat. The scutcheons, which are also frequent, are bucklers, or military symbols. They are usually adorned on the inner side with a variety of symbolical figures variously grouped, which evidently served as the owner's coat of arms, and are the most ancient known specimens of the kind, going back to the stone age, or at least to the transition age from stone to bronze. After that time the custom of putting their owners' arms upon bucklers spread widely. It lasted till the end of the middle ages. The painted vases of classical antiquity furnish numerous and very curious examples of such marks. The interpretation of the megalithic sculptures may furnish probable if not certain details concerning an epoch which is very little known to us. Thus, the scutcheon of the dolmen des Marchands, containing four series of crosses, one above the other, and each series divided into two parts, fifty-six crosses in all, may have been the arms of a chief of a powerful confederation having fifty-six less important chiefs under his orders. The supposition is confirmed by the dimensions of the monument and a large handled hatchet engraved under the tablet between two other crosses.

Near the dolmen des Marchands, and not far from the sea, is the large tumulus of Marie-Hroeck, which includes a small dolmen containing rich funerary furnishings. In front of the entrance to the cavern is a rectangular slab that bears on its face a scutcheon containing two crosses, symbolical of power, and several very rudely drawn representations of boats. The engravers of this period were not artists, but stone-cutters, working upon a very hard rock with very poor tools. Unable to figure distinctly what they wanted to, they did the best they could. Handled hatchets were distributed irregularly all round the scutcheons. Does not this epitaph seem to mean that the tomb was erected in memory of a powerful maritime chief by soldiers, his companions in arms?

From these bucklers we pass to generalized feminine representations characterized by concentric necklaces and pairs of prominent globular breasts. Such sculptures, which are repeated in various dolmens and artificial mortuary caves in the valley of the Seine, may be of religious import. They seem to be replaced in the south of France by attempts at statues. Of such character are the two sculptures of the dolmen of Collorgues in Gard, which also have the symbolical cross on their breasts.

Whatever they may be, the megalithic engravings are the earliest graphic historical documents of the country. It is therefore important to collect and preserve them.

They may be divided into simple ornamental motives, which may further suggest interesting resemblances; figurative engravings representing known and definite objects and forming commemorative pictures capable of affording important historical or legendary hints—the most ancient documents in our archives; and symbolical engravings of more difficult determination, and independent of any alphabet.

Among the specimens of the last class, one sort, the cupule, is extremely widespread. It is a very regularly shaped hemispherical cup, generally represented by itself, but sometimes mingled with other figures, most usually occurring in groups without arrangement, but very rarely isolated. Entire surfaces are sometimes covered with this design. It is a very ancient design, as such cupules are found on the dolmens. In the dolmen of Kériaval, at Locmariquer, the lower side of the horizontal slab is starred with numerous cupules, which antedate the construction of the monument, for they appear on the parts that rest on the supports. There may also, however, be more recent cupules. We are totally in the dark as to what they represent.

Cupules are sometimes cut on the surface of rocks in place. Engravings similarly cut have been designated sculptures on rocks, and are found almost everywhere. Those which have been most studied and afford the most features of interest for us are on the Scandinavian coasts, and these have been largely utilized by Adrien de Mortillet for the determination of the figures of megaliths. We cite only one example from Gaul, the sculptures in the rocks of the Lago dei Maraviglie, in a lateral valley on the left, going from San Dalmazo to Tende, in Piedmont. Some of the walls of the rock there and large surfaces of detached blocks are covered with extremely rude figures formed by the accumulation of dints resulting from frequently repeated blows. Among these figures, which are without order in the grouping, and in which no regard is paid to proportions, are stags, rams, human figurines, hatchets, pikes, baskets, and lance points. These sculptures have been ascribed to the neolithic or the bronze age; but the existence of figures of similar style on the walls of a lead mine near Valauri has suggested that they may be more recent. Human figurines are numerous, but heads of horned animals are more so. Some are perhaps stags and rams, while bulls and cows are abundant. The shepherds are accustomed to take their herds and keep them for two or three months every year in this valley, which is so lonely and melancholy in aspect that it has been called Valiée d'Enfer, or Hell Valley. It would not be strange if these herdsmen, for want of something better to do, should have amused themselves delineating the things that were before their eyes—the cattle, the miners, and things appertaining to the mine. As to special traits, the representations are so badly executed as to leave a wide range open for interpretation.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Book Formation de la Nation française (Paris: Félix Alcan).


An old Newcomen steam engine at North Ashton, near Bristol, England, as described by Mr. W. H. Pearson in the British Association, is still doing practical work after an active career of nearly one hundred and fifty years, it having been erected in 1750 at a cost of seventy pounds. The piston is packed with rope, and has a covering of water on the top to make it steam tight. The working of the engine is aided by the vacuum formed by the injection of water into the cylinder. The old man now engaged in working this engine has held his post since.he was a lad, and his father and grandfather occupied the same position.

The excavation of the Roman town of Calleva Attrebatum at Silchester, near Reading, England, has brought to light nearly forty complete houses, a private bathing establishment, two square temples, the west gate, a Christian church possibly of the fourth century, a basilica and forum, an extensive system of dye works, a series of drains, other works, and a multitude of ornaments and utensils—remains of Roman civic life and institutions, complementing previous discoveries of Roman monuments in England, which have been mostly military.

  1. Ch. Letourneau. Alphabet Forms in Megalithic Inscriptions. Bulletin of the Society of Anthropology, 1893.