On the small island of Benignes in Breton, on the tip of France’s Atlantic coast, archaeologists hope to raise awareness of household waste trapped in sand dunes since the Bronze Age. Scientific and human challenge.
“We collect rubbish from people who lived there 4,000 years ago,” explains Yvan Bailer, an archaeologist at the University of Western Brittany (UBO), in front of the excavation site. “This will allow us to analyze their economy, how they live, and find out what types of animals they raised…”
Since 2021, an exceptional license has been granted for excavations on this 60-hectare island of the Molin archipelago, classified as a nature reserve since 1993 and therefore off-limits to access.
At the water’s edge, in a square a few square meters carved into the dune, students and archaeologists explore a large pile of shells, trapped in the dunes for thousands of years, before being exposed by a storm in 2014. The site contains several layers of detritus divided into layers dating back to The oldest of them dates back to the Neolithic era.
The most common species in this pile of ancestral detritus is the clam (or clam), that famous Chinese hat-shaped shell. This small animal, which lives on rocky foreshores, has been consumed by islanders for thousands of years.
“We will be able to use these small clams as climate archives and trace the environmental and climatic history of the area,” confirms Jean-François Coudinc, a marine biologist, who dedicated his thesis to the clams found at this site.
By analyzing the shells, it is actually possible to chart the history of the women and men who collected them. “We can determine the water temperature just before the animal dies,” explains Mr. Kudinik. “This information will give us the season in which these people went clam fishing.”
Which then makes it possible to know the “seasonality of site occupation,” because “if we have clams collected year-round in the middle, it means that people were there all year,” the researcher adds.
Over the centuries, periods of permanent or occasional occupation have been defined. “We have huge, long-lasting structures and small moments of life sealed in the mass of the dunes,” says Clement Nicola, an archaeologist at the National Center for Scientific Research.
Specializing in societies from the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC, this archaeologist hopes to learn more about the way of life of the Belbecker Men, a culture that was then widespread throughout Europe, and whose origin and rapid spread are still a matter of debate.
“back to basics”
“We know this culture particularly through dolmens and tombs,” such as in Carnac, in Brittany (west), explains Mr. Nicolas. “We are starting to learn about habitats. There, we have bell-shaped litter boxes. This in itself represents a small revolution on the scale of Brittany.”
Especially since the sand dunes, rich in limestone, preserve bones very well, unlike acidic soil. “Our dream is to find a grave,” which will make it possible to trace the origin of this population using DNA analyses, says the archaeologist.
Excavations, funded in particular by the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB) and UBO, could continue for several more years, despite the austere living conditions on the island, without water or electricity.
“It’s a return to basics, a challenge, a transcendence,” smiles Eric Bouyer, 34, a former archeology student from Quebec.
Compared to other excavation sites, “it is the most private and mentally difficult in terms of daily life and lifestyle,” confirms Lina Geloza, an archeology student at the University of Paris I. Crush on the island.”
“Total coffee aficionado. Travel buff. Music ninja. Bacon nerd. Beeraholic.”