France is the most visited country in the world. This is not that surprising when you consider this nation’s archaeological and historical heritage. From the Palaeolithic cave art in the Dordogne and the megalithic structures of Neolithic Brittany, through the later prehistoric periods of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Roman occupation of Gaul, the Medieval and Renaissance and the vast number of castles and churches standing still today in various states of repair, and the numerous memorials from two world wars, there is no questioning that France has some of the most iconic archaeology and history in the world.
Archaeology in France starts in the lower Palaeolithic around half a million years ago with stone tools and fossil remains of some of the oldest humans in Europe. The dating of these finds is not without its problems which, combined with the relatively small number of finds, makes interpretations of these earliest times very difficult and highly contentious. But, from Le Vallonnet in the south of France to the Somme River gravels in northern France, acheulian hand axes thought to be around a half a million years old provide evidence of the earliest habitation of France. In Africa these tools are associated with Homo Erectus, but there is no unequivocal fossil evidence of these early hominids in France. The earliest fossil remains come from Arago Cave in the south and are dated to about 450,000 years ago: the so-called Tauteval man. The remains from this cave represent a few individuals that appear to be ancestors of the Neanderthals.
Archaeological evidence for the upper Palaeolithic may be more substantial but it is no less contentious. The cave art found in the caves of the Dordogne, as well as other regions in the south of France including the Pyrénées, is without doubt amongst the most spectacular archaeology in France. The oldest of these finds date to over 30,000 years ago, the most recent being about 10,000 years old. The well known cave of Lascaux, discovered in 1940, is but one in a number of sites in the Les-Eyzies area, many of which are still open to the public. So rich is the archaeology in this area that it has long been called the “World Capital of Prehistory”, and the Vézère Valley is included on the UNESCO list of World heritage sites.
A similar and equally amazing collection of sites, but from the Neolithic period, is situated in the Morbihan area of Brittany. The Neolithic period, starting about 8,000 years ago, is when our ancestors changed from living by hunting animals and gathering plant foods to living with domesticated animals and plants, which made them more sedentary. In the archaeological record we see the development of villages, the making of pottery and other artefacts associated with farming. But, the more visible and striking archaeology of this period has to be the megalithic funerary architecture, that dates to about 5,000 to 6,500 years ago. These monuments are frequently simple dolmens but also include the much more complex chambered and passage tombs, one of the most interesting being the decorated passage tomb at Gavrinis. The area around the seaside town of Carnac has a diverse range of these monuments, notably the stone alignments.Following the Neolithic, with the rise of complex sedentary communities with fully developed agricultural practices, we start to see from about 5,000 years ago evidence for the smelting of at first copper and bronze and later iron. Early archaeologists then used these technological advances to define the Bronze Age and the Iron Age – labels that are still used today. On the ground, and beside the villages, the Bronze Age people produced their characteristic tumuli, often very large mounds of earth and/or stones that covered a grave or a series of graves. But, as a result of the smelting of ores, both the Bronze and the Iron Age peoples created some very fine metalwork, which was not always functional. Swords, for example, were often too thin to be any real use, but they are also finely decorated indicating they were of symbolic importance. It was during the Iron Age that these metalworking techniques were most developed, in what we know of as “Celtic art”. The National Museum of Archaeology in Saint-Germain-en-Laye has the finest collection of Bronze and Iron Age artefacts.
Evidence from many sites in the south of France, for example Lattes, show that the Iron Age communities had significant trading networks with both the Greeks and the Etruscans. And, around 600 BC, the Greeks established the port of Massalia, or what is Marseille today – the oldest French city. But the Greek influence in France was minimal. In about 390 BC a Celtic tribe under the leadership of their Chief Brennus crossed the Alps into what is Italy and went on to attack Rome.
The Iron Age Celtic tribes were a continuous threat for the Romans up until about 125 BC when the Romans conquered the south of Gaul, as the Romans called what broadly corresponds to present-day France, claiming the south as a “Provincia Romana”, a Roman Province. And it is from this that the French name Provence derives. By 52 BC, under Julius Caesar, the rest of Gaul fell under Roman rule. Under Augustus, Gaul was divided into provinces: Gallia Narbonensis to the south, Gallia Aquitania in the south-west, Gallia Lugdunensis in the center and Gallia Belgica to the north. And it was during this time that much of the substantial Roman architecture that we still see today throughout France was constructed, as well as a substantial network of Roman roads. Some of the best examples of Roman architecture can be found in France. In present-day Nîmes – the Gallo-Roman city of Nemausus, for example, the Maison Carrée is said to be the best preserved temple from the Roman Empire. The theatre in Orange is the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe, and has been placed on the UNESCO list of World heritage sites.From the 3rd century AD onwards, Roman Gaul suffered a number of attacks from invading tribes; Saxons from the north and Germanic tribes from the east. Towards the end of the 5th century AD the Franks assumed power in Gaul – and in 486 AD Gaul ceased to be a Roman state. The Franks adopted the Christian Gallo-Roman heritage, and ancient Gaul became Francia, “Land of the Franks”. What follows then is known as the Middle Ages, or the Medieval period. As a result of the continuous and often tumultuous power struggles that characterise the Medieval period France has numerous castles, fortresses and churches, from the beautiful walled city of Carcassonne in the south to the striking castle-fort at Blandy-les-Tours near Paris.