A perhaps little known fact about Corsica, alongside all its other myriad charms and secrets, is that it is home to some of the most startling stone age history anywhere in the world. In October of last year I visited Filitosa home to some extraordinary megalithic monuments and one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe.
The origins of the megalithic culture (megalith meaning ‘great stone’) that dominated western Europe for the best part of 4000 years from the early neolithic period around 5000BC onwards, are still largely obscure. It is thought by some to have been seeded by travellers from the near east and Palestine, seaborne wayfarers who gradually explored the western seaboard from southern Spain to the Orkney Islands bringing their culture with them; other archaeologists are more dubious about a single ‘culture’ and see the megalithic period as a gradual period of exchange and growth, even of simultaneous flowering.
Whatever the origins, the very facts of the constructions of these monuments are extraordinary: groups of men, sometimes up to 200 at a time, hacking and shaping vast slabs (the Le Grand Menhir Brisé at Locmariaquer in Brittany is estimated to have weighed 355 tons) and erecting them as menhirs or standing stones, such as Stonehenge and Avebury, or, later on, carving them into anthropomorphic shapes as objects of worship, or avatars of dead warriors. These surviving monuments are part of a shared history, a shared history that remains accessible today.
Filitosa, between Propriano and Ajaccio, on the western coast of Corsica, is an obscure little place. I drove to it on an early October afternoon, under fierce blue skies. I’d been in the mountains that morning and was full of space and light. Coming to the tight lanes of the Sartenais felt strange, constricting somehow; and given what I’d read about Filitosa as one of the most important megalithic sites in the whole of Europe it all felt a little underplayed – I thought I must have come to the wrong place. I parked up, watched by 3 people in deckchairs, entered through a small cafe area, the patron seemingly surprised to see me, and wandered along a broken path under swaying poplars. I was still unsure of what exactly I was going to see…
Back in the 1940s the owner of the land, Charles-Antoine Cesari, had unearthed several stones and steles (stone slabs) in the maquis that clothed the hillsides. He was unsure of their provenance but word spread of their existence and archaeologists arrived eager to see more. Roger Grosjean, a famous French archaeologist, came to the site numerous times in the 1950s, gradually turning up more spectacular examples of megalithic workings and indeed the presence of long-populated settlement around which the various menhirs and statues were dotted. Dorothy Carrington, author of the peerless Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica), accompanied Grosjean on some of his early forays into the area and was present when some of the more important articles were found. Here is her take on the unfolding drama:
“Roger Grosjean was preparing to leave Filitosa when Charles-Antonie casually remarked that there was an old monastery on his property, hidden in the maquis. He took his guest to a densely wooded spur overlooking a stream… Grosjean at once realised that the wall which could be glimpsed through the tangled vegetation was not the work of any medieval craftsmen: it was composed of the colossal blocks of stone used by prehistoric men.”
What they had uncovered is what is now known as the central monument, the extraordinary hub around which the story of Filitosa entwines itself. Dorothy Carrington describes how, after leaving Corsica for a time, she returned with the excavations at an advanced stage:
“I reached Filitosa late in the afternoon, hitch-hiking in a van freighted with the first grapes. Charles-Antoine took me to the site in the still scorching sunset hour. We passed a fragment of wall at the neck of the spur, built of giant’s stones. The ground had been cleared of all vegetation except the larger olive trees. Dust hung thick, turning gold, in the motionless air… Strange beings were crowded under the tree: stone figures starting out of the ground at waist level like ghosts rising from their graves. A stately aristocratic face confronted me, a face of intimidating authority, with deepset eyes under level brows and a long straight nose… The statues, or busts, had been set upright around a circular stone construction occupying the centre of the spur. All of them were broken at waist level. Stone blocks of various sizes were propped beside them; fragments of unsculptured menhirs or of their own bodies”
And this is much how a visit to the site unfolds to this day. Beyond that rough cobbled pathway, the site opened up before me, and like Carrington I stood transfixed before the central monument, unsure as to how to proceed. It wasn’t so much that the site demanded any supplication or religious response, it was more the feeling of being in the presence of something ancient and dense with layers of accreted meaning – the very air alive with it.
I think a large part of why Filitosa induces such a quiet, awed response is down to the simplicity of things – there is very little there in many ways, none of the evidence of everyday life or the clutter of history beyond the fact of the stones and the landscape, a landscape which has remained pretty much unchanged for millennia. Approaching a great building or a grand architectural construction there is almost a built-in response mechanism, a sense of forced drama, something crushing and vaguely inhuman. At Filitosa, despite the great chasm of time, there is something very human at work, you are almost* granted a glimpse of an eternal present. I say almost because there is still something uncanny and unknowable about these mute pagan edifices, and by extension the minds that created them. Historians are still unsure as to their exact meaning: are the great stones sacrificial sites or evidence of ceremonial practices? Are the anthropomorphic statues likenesses of the deceased, the garb representing famous warriors, or are they tokenistic offerings, warding off would-be invaders? These things will probably remain unknown, but as the site continues to yield more finds and evidence of over 6000 years of settlement of the area accumulates we get closer to our remote past. And to be sure there is SO much to see at Filitosa beyond the magic of the stones – the small museum alone is a treasure house of reclaimed artefacts and implements.
But in truth, it’s in the sublime gaps in our knowledge and in the silence of the stones that the true power of Filitosa lies: as you stand atop the central monument cut from the fire-forged granite, down across the sweep of maquis to the four solemn isolated statues that encircle an olive grove, and onwards to the restless wash of the ocean, there’s a kind of humbling quietude. It’s quite a place.
* I also say almost because, for some unknown reason, the site owners have chosen to place speakers all around the site, speakers piping out the most dismal and uninvolving classical music imaginable, music that utterly detracts from the dramatic sweep of the drama around you. And I thought it was only the British who liked to destroy the magic of ancient sites with lashings of twee.