Thieves of time

Memorising lists of monarchs and ministers, of dates and dynasties, has never been my scene. How very different is the history of my local environment, of my living space – to me this is fascinating. Knowing that my house in Richmond was built in the nineteenth century, that the road outside was being used in the 1690s, and that 700 years ago people were working the soil at the site of our allotment, all give me a feeling of belonging, of being a part of some continuum, possibly even offering a sense of security.

The special importance of one’s local history was highlighted on a recent trip to Paris. My wife and I were on a mission. Our task was to find a particular iron-age burial mound that we were told was on display at France’s National Archaeological Museum. Exhibits were housed in a former royal palace on the outskirts of Paris. The mound itself was said to be in its moat.

This was not any old burial mound, the stones had been brought to Paris from Tréguennec, a village in Brittany where we have a cottage and where we have begun to take root. In Tréguennec, like in Richmond, history abounds. The chapel dates from the 16th century and the name of the village (which means ‘a pretty place`) can be traced back to the 1300s. Standing stones dating from at least 1-2000BC are dotted throughout the village and just up the road there is a hearth (the earliest of its kind in Europe) from a dwelling inhabited by early homonids around 400,000 years ago.

Despite this richness, the Tréguennecois miss their iron-age burial mound, which once stood almost ‘centre ville’. Story has it that in 1902, archaeologists descended from Paris and removed (some say stole) it, bones, artefacts, and all. The then villagers were told they could not be trusted to look after this treasure themselves. In Paris it would find a caring home. After a century or so the locals were keen to check; hence our recce. What we discovered was all very sad.

When we arrived at the museum the front-of-house staff were grumpy and unable to help – we got the equivalent of “never heard of it”. There were more smiles from a curator, but no help. She gave us a map of the moat that showed two stone burial ‘corridors’, but neither looking remotely like ours. The mound was not mentioned in a museum guide or in any of the specialist books in the museum shop. The museum archives were closed that day and to know more we would need to ring later in the week.

Feeling disappointed, we headed out into the museum gardens to check the moat for ourselves, just in case. Nothing was signposted or labelled. The two large stone structures could be seen just as the map had indicated. We walked on and suddenly, in the distance, there appeared our heritage; a simple and modest wall of small stones arranged in a circle. In all, the mound was about 40 cm high, and the circle around 3 metres in diameter. The structure was all but hidden by overgrown grass and weeds.

Both of us were delighted by the find but angered by a sense of betrayed. Our burial mound was there but hidden, neglected and anonymous, and all this was hurtful. It would seem that the state authorities simply did not care, did not understand how attached people are to their own history. Clearly, for the museum, the burial mound means little in human terms. In contrast, for a small Breton community, the value of a burial mound that contained the skeletons of the village forefathers is immense. Surely it is time for the mound to be brought home.

Editor’s footnote.

This is not so much a postscript to Joe’s thoughtful piece above, but more of an attempt to lighten the tone a little. It seems that we blinked and missed the second birthday of Greyhares last week. We were preoccupied. Like the human infant, we had spent our first year trying to master the art of remaining upright, and now in year two we are just beginning to make some kind of sense.

So, to mark the anniversary we asked our Honorary President, Jeanette Reid to say a few words:

“This is my third statement as president and it gives me great pleasure to have been on the bridge of the good ship Greyhares since its launch. A steady production of articles each and every week since December 2009 is an achievement of which I am proud. I know that our subscription list has now reached four or five figures with addresses across the world, and that each month we get almost 15,000 hits. I note too that we are also attracting the occasional sensible comment: all this I find very impressive. Moreover, increasingly the Greyhares generation, of which I am a proud member, is becoming more assertive, more vocal and more computer literate, and I see this blog as a modest antidote to the otherwise unrewarding aspects of the ageing process.

One comment on “Thieves of time
  1. Kathy Mere says:

    Greetings from Switzerland!
    When in the UK, my husband and I are based in Queensberry House in Richmond. We have been fans of Martha for years and, visiting her yesterday, she proudly showed me the print-out of your piece about her love of ‘Strictly’. I told her there was no need to lend me the pages to read, since we could look them up on-line when back home, and this we have now done. Since we clearly share an admiration for Martha, I thought I’d read more from the Greyhares website – specifically your contributions (time being limited). Your report of your visit to St German-en-Laye was of special interest since we were there – also on a specific mission – just a couple of weeks ago. We wanted to see some of the museum’s exhibits taken from a Sythian burial mound near Kerch in Crimea as a prelude to visiting the site itself in April.
    The château looked glorious in the snow, but it was distressing to learn that only the mezannine galleries were open ‘à cause du froid’. The exhibits we were interested in were on the 2nd floor. A member of staff went to ask the directeur in person whether she might take us to the showcase in question – notwithstanding the room’s closure. She returned with profuse apologies to the effect that no exceptions could be made. To be fair, we’d emphasised that we were non-experts with just a tourist’s interest in viewing these objects.
    We were told that this was the first time they’d ever had to close off part of the museum because of the intense cold. It was a disappointment, but we nonetheless enjoyed the mezzanine exhibits and the excellent informative texts. For the record, all the members of staff we spoke to went out of the way to be helpful
    I can understand your feelings about ‘your’ burial mound, though.

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