Forest wandering with Neolithic man

I had a very pleasant afternoon reliving my childhood dream of being an archaeologist. After finishing my morning’s English teaching, helping a group of European diplomats sound more persuasive and, well, diplomatic, I grabbed the camera and hopped out on my bike, forest bound. This is the great advantage of working as a freelancer, you can seize the moment. I had no clear objective other than to enjoy the first blue skies and sunshine we have had in weeks.

Taking a moment…

My first stop was just a scrubby clearing near the entrance to the forest, but I like this place because you get a bit of a vista, and something about the landscape is even vaguely Mediterranean, with Spanish broom and pines growing in the open ground. It’s off the main track, and nobody else comes here – there is only the faintest little grassy path.

A scrubby clearing with pines on the horizon

After some time just taking it in, I hopped back on my bike and went a little deeper into the forest, on Chemin des Deux Montagnes. This takes you to an intersection with the intriguingly named Chemin des Tumuli, which is where the Neolithic site is located. This is what you initially see as you approach it, looking over a low hedge, just a gentle dip in the ground with two mounds either side of it, and the stubs of some felled trees.

Yet there is definitely something suggestive of human sculpting of the landscape, there are quite clearly visible earthen mounds.

Looking from the top of one mound to the other, with a felled tree trunk in the foreground.
Looking from the opposite perspective, towards the smaller of the two mounds.

A small sign by the road indicates that this is the listed archaeological site of Deux Tetres (or Tumuli), that sits alongside the remains of a camp belonging to the Michelsburg civilisation, an important Neolithic culture in central Europe between 4400-3500 BC. They occupied a swathe of western-central Europe from Northern France, through Belgium and into Germany, where one of their most famous sites was found on a hill in Michelsburg, whence they get their name.

A map of the archaeological site

What I love about sites like these are two things: the ability to just scramble around them unheeded and unshepherded by anyone, and the exercise that unfolds imagining the lives of the people who lived here some 6,000 years ago, just a short bike ride from where I live now. My Dad took me to similar sites of mounded earth on trips to visit family in the south-west of England, and I found them mesmerising. The same giddy imagining overtook me on a visit to Merv, the ancient Silk Road city that the Mongols razed, and of which just rounded mud-coloured mounds remain.

Stumps mark the felling of trees to protect the site

The only modern-day interference that is visible here is the felling of trees to ensure that the site is not damaged by them. The sign states that while the cover of the forest did help limit erosion for a long time, the planting of several beech trees in 1808 and their subsequent aging threated serious damage, should one fall and uproot large sections of tumuli!

The site marks a high point in the forest here (good for defensive purposes), but just down the hill there is plenty of water. I don’t know if the people on this particular site practised agriculture and how much forest there was at that time. Archaeological evidence suggests that colonists from the Michelsburg culture were instrumental in the spread of agriculture to other parts, including Scandanavia and the British Isles.

A lake a short way downhill from the site: water and civilisation are never far apart

So after some scrambling around and taking photographs, I whizzed down the hill to the lake, which is a peaceful spot, despite the fact that today lots of school kids were walking about there. I am glad they are getting their exercise.

A bridge over the water

As I contemplated the lake, I looked down at my feet and saw hundreds of beech nuts. Not surprising in a predominately beech forest, but what was odd was that some of them were pink. This made me look closer, and I realised that many of these nuts were just germinating. If you look closely, you can see the process beginning. If anyone knows why they go pink, do let me know!

Beech nuts, and the beginning of germination
A closer look, and a distinctly pink seed bursting out of its hard casing.

After that, it was time to go home, as I’d already missed my lunch. So up the hill I peddaled, out of the forest, along the avenue of houses of the extremely wealthy right by the forest, to the train station, across the main road, and into my neighbourhood. Fast forward 6,000 years of civilisation. So I wonder, 6,000 years from now, who will be trudging over earthen mounds and contemplating our lives, will they even be human or will we have left the earth by then?

The horse, the goats and an outraged heron

“Something very odd is going on in that field. Will you take a look at that? Really, it’s hardly decent!”, thinks the young heron, watching the goings-on across the lake.

“Looks fairly normal to me, just a tranquil horse munching some grass…”, thinks the photographer.

“Hang on a second, are those goats? Goats and horses, do they mix? Well it seems they do, and as it happens everyone seems to be getting on just fine”, concludes the photographer.

“Well, you said fine, but you know, boys will be boys, and goats will be goats”, says the horse. It seems that there is a bit of competition for the attentions of a certain lady goat.

“It wasn’t me!”, says one male goat.

“Wasn’t me either!”, says the other male goat.

“Err, that’s not what I saw”, says the young and slightly outraged heron.

“Seen it all before. No big deal”, says the horse. “Think I’ll eat some more grass”.

“Well, spring is in the air”, thinks the photographer. “Wait a minute, we’re in December, we haven’t even had Christmas yet…very strange times we are living through”.

The Debonaire Great Blue Heron

It was a glorious afternoon at the forest lakes by Rouge Cloitre (the Augustinian Priory of Red Cloister, on the outskirts of Brussels). My friend the heron is often there, standing contemplative by the edge of the lake. On this day, he was sporting a nice spikey quiff, giving him a rather debonaire look.

He had positioned himself on a fallen branch, and had been preening himself. Those fluffy feathers at the very tip of his beak give it away.

This is his rather special home, a medieval priory nestled in the woods, surrounded by lakes. Like the medieval monks who once lived here, the heron is rather found of a spot of fishing, as well as some quiet contemplation of course.