enter In our small village, high on a ridge and surrounded by forest and garrigue, there is a discernible sense of continuity with the past – although that is not to say there have been no changes, particularly over the past year. The smallholders and French inhabitants haven’t yet been outnumbered by second-homers here, unlike many other communities in the south, despite the proliferation of builders’ notices on gateposts as the conversion of old outbuildings continues and neat, new bungalows spring up on the periphery. The substantial village infrastructure works we lived with last summer have now been completed, a smart new mairie rebuilt in its original place, as shown on old village plans, the ornate water tap removed, restored and replaced, and our small community is once more a picture of continuity and order, thanks to the energetic and hardworking Monsieur le Maire, to-ing and fro-ing on his Vespa.
follow site Work on the ancient castle continues, however, as the masons work their way around the fortress which dominates the old bastide; the past two years have seen walls rebuilt and repointed, and former crenellations reappear, suggestive of scenes from a French illuminated manuscript of the Middle Ages. As the newly-restored walls appear from behind scaffolding, villagers stand tut-tutting at the change, preferring the romantic, crumbling version of weathered old stones to the pristine lines of new masonry and questionably heavy use of mortar.
see Built back in the twelfth century, the castle was one of a line of defensive fortresses erected after a series of invasions following the departure of the newly-converted Romans, when Franks, Vandals, Saracens and Vikings, amongst others, threatened the establishment of Christianity before eventually feudalism and the re-establishment of the Church brought with it a sense of security and order. Stone settlements housing people and animals in winter were wedged into the southern side of castle, a cobbled ‘calade’ or alleyway, twisting its way inside the original bastide, the whole protected by stout stone walls and towers, only some of which still remain.
But the site here has been inhabited since even further back in time, and such finds as polished stone axes, small blades, a large cache of flint arrowheads, and what (to me) looks very similar to an early loom weight, were unearthed in a dig carried out in the nineteenth century. Such finds suggest that the site of the village and its immediate vicinity has supported human habitation since the Stone Age.
It is difficult to imagine the life prehistoric people led but study of other Stone Age and particularly Neolithic cultures suggests a way of life keenly aware of the changing seasons. We are not far here from the Chauvet site, and a spectacular reconstruction of the original. Many archeological sites in France, such as Carnac, have standing stones and tombs dating back beyond written history. Gavrinis, in the Gulf of Morbihan, has a chamber tomb which is spectacularly decorated with early stone carvings.
One of the oldest man-made constructions in existence (pre-dating the Pyramids and Stonehenge), is at Newgrange in Knowth, Ireland and provides some fascinating clues as to the astronomical knowledge of early people. At the winter solstice in December, the dawn breaking brings a ray of light through an aperture above the entrance to an altar at the far end of a passageway of this Stone Age tomb. (I have recently learnt that this also occurs at Gavrinis). Inscriptions on the stones placed outside the tomb take the form of a series of enigmatic symbols, thought to relate to its function as a celebration of the turn in the year when the days slowly become longer and the long, dark nights of winter gradually shorten. An intimate familiarity with the environment and knowledge of how to sustain existence was necessary for survival once people started to settle in communities: knowledge of astronomy, an understanding of the seasons, and an increasing awareness of the point in the annual and lunar cycle to plant seed would have been crucial. Interestingly, although the almanac has long been very popular here, bought and consulted by smallholders and traditional farmers, bio-dynamism is now becoming newly rediscovered and investigated as a scientific method of vine-growing and farming.
The piece I produced from mid-December to mid-January was inspired by the festivals of light which are celebrated to mark the mid-point of winter and the re-emergence of longer hours of daylight; such is the hold of this notion on our collective human psyche. Taking the idea of the solstice as celebrated amongst the earliest civilisations, I have made motifs inspired by those at Newgrange in Ireland and, because I wanted to produce something earthily organic with the beauty of nature, homespun and irregular, I chose rough linens and scraps of antique home-woven hemp fabric, some with the original handsewn hemming stitches produced by hands long gone. The deliberately naive prints were made from oak leaves and a home-made wooden stamp using walnut ink with regular stitches echoing the lozenge shapes and lending geometry to the piece. I avoided using fabric stabiliser so as to produce something loose, tactile and intentionally imperfect, although regular.
From the left, my favoured spiral motifs suggest the mystical complexities of life in the subtlety of their colours, barely showing against the linen (I used single-thread floss here); the central section suggests disintegration and a process of re-emergence and restoration; on the right, the third section shows the alignment and suggestion of a ray of light as the cycle begins again and the light overcomes the darkness of winter, so the life-cycle may start again.
In a world where we so often live busy lives detached from the natural rhythms of life, that to reflect on the totality of the human experience and transcend, even for a short while, the rigid framework of imposed deadlines, is to see the world as a less fragmented and divided place.
Total size: 50cm x 50cm approx.