Walking in the fields around Tremblay, my lovely village home for a month in France, I picked up some stones that took me to a new and fascinating world. Sensuously smooth yet razor edged, heavy and full of fossilized shell traces, they had the ring of porcelain when you chinked them. On the outside, even on the many broken pieces, there was a smooth, uninteresting brown surface; the intact ones are large and small nodules of great weight and density. The colours inside range from graduated greys and blacks, often speckled with white that reminded me of hawthorn blossom, to subtle grey-blues reminiscent of some Limoges or Sèvres porcelain, bronze-tawny golds or even soft pinks.
I had already learned about the fossilized stones in the soil of Burgundy, particularly around the Chablis area, where tiny ancient shells confer the bright mineral taste so characteristic to the white wines of Chablis. Those date from the Kimmeridgian times of the Late Jurassic, some 157-152 million years ago. These stones, from the Tremblay area, proved to be from a later time, the Cretaceous era that lasted from 145 to 66 million years ago. Then, sediments on the sea floor formed nodules, silica, that filled burrows and cavities of tiny creatures that had dropped to the seabed when they died. These amazing silica nodules, big and small, of surprising weight, lie in chalk soils of blinding whiteness. They are what we all know as silex or flint – the stuff, literally, of childhood enthusiasms about arrowheads.
I always love it when life provides one with delicious coincidences that add depth and interest; this proved the case as I started to make metalpoint drawings of these stones which I kept finding. I went one day to Troyes, the lovely city of Gothic cathedral and churches and wood-timbered medieval houses, and the centre of the Aube-Champagne Department. At the ancient hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte, there is currently an exhibition, Arkéaube, displaying recent archaeological finds in the upper Seine River basin unearthed during preventative digs on proposed building sites.
There, in the first room, were silex stones and arrow heads just like those I had been picking up! They have played a vital part in man’s development for at least the last 10,000 years. In Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times, the inhabitants of that area had exploited silex mines in the hills south of Nogent sur Seine and Troyes known now as the Pays d’Othe. The silex was used for everything that required digging, cutting, poking, killing… i.e. hunting, fighting, agriculture, tree-felling, everything. There in the exhibition were the arrow heads and cutting tools that were attached to antlers or bones to be used as tools or weapons.
In order to achieve as sharp an edge to the flint as possible, early man chipped the stone first, as we all learn. But then the sharpening began, and to my fascination, right at the entrance to Tremblay, there was a large boulder. It was a grinding stone for the Neoliths. A flattened area was for grinding stones or perhaps, later, even cereal. The other side of the stone is grooved, a perfect set-up for sharpening a silex edge. A wonderfully clear link for me back to the migrants from the Near East who came to today’s Eastern France some 5300 years ago.
The Arkéaube exhibition devoted a room to Neolithic man in the area, with his hunting, cultivation of many types of cereal, early livestock, small grouped homes and funeral preparations for the afterlife. By 2,200 BC, these early inhabitants had evolved beyond simple ribbon or Bell-Beaker ceramics. Their way of life changed radically with the introduction of bronze technology into this area which was at the nexus of rivers and routes from eastern Europe to western France and the British Isles. Henceforth, silex was not nearly so vital for tools as metal had supplanted it. Agriculture evolved and grew more important as wild game had been greatly diminished in number (sounds like today, doesn’t it!). Animal husbandry and textiles were more emphasised, and, again, no surprise, weaponry gained in importance because man became more belligerent to fellow man as the numbers of humans increased. And, as the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age moved on, international trade increased; valuable goods were imported from lands far away. We are not the only ones who believe we live in a global-trading world!
Back in my sunlit cottage at Tremblay, I kept “communing” with my silex stones, with their traces of ancient sea worlds, and associations of man so distant and yet so near. I loved this silent dialogue.