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The mysteries of La Hougue Bie
By James McLachlan
BBC Jersey

La Hougue Bie entrance
La Hougue Bie has stood for 6,000 years

The 6,000 year-old burial site at La Hougue Bie is one of the best preserved remnants of the Neolithic period in Western Europe.

Every spring and autumn crowds of people gather to watch the equinox from inside the chamber.

Archaeologists can make educated guesses about what went on there, but much is shrouded in mystery.

The name is Norse in origin, coming from hougue meaning man made and bie meaning Homestead.

Archaeologist Olga Finch is the curator at La Hougue Bie, and explained this in more detail.

"Hougue and Bie are Norse words. Hougue was a term the Vikings used for man—made mounds, and Bie means homestead. So it could mean the homestead near the mound," said Olga.

Despite being best known as a burial ground Olga says that this was just one, albeit important, aspect of what went on.

"It was almost like a cross between a modern-day church and a community hall.

"We know there were rituals associated with seasonal activities because the Neolithic people were the first farmers," she explained.

Therefore the cycles of nature were crucial to the survival of the indigenous population. The discovery of the equinox alignment brought home how important this time of year was to the farming community.

Awe inspiring

La Hougue Bie entrance
It is one of Western Europe's best preserved mounds

The Equinox alignment happens twice a year. La Hougue Bie's entrance points directly east, which enables a beam of sunlight to travel up the passageway to illuminate the chamber deep in the mound.

Today, this natural phenomenon inspires awe, not just among the community at large, but with archaeologists like Olga.

"We are talking about 6,000 years ago. The window into the tomb was set up perfectly, so that the rising sun penetrates not just the front, but all the way back into the terminal cell," she said.

Olga believes the terminal cell at the foremost part of the mound would have been the focal point for any rituals which took place.

Entering the mound is a mildly uncomfortable experience, requiring visitors to crouch, chimp-like, to negotiate the nine metre passageway leading to the chamber.

Olga says this was probably to conceal the main area for ritual from uninvited eyes.

The passage opens up into the main chamber, which takes a cruciform shape. Two side chambers to the north and south were the burial plots for the dead.

Sacred area

La Hougue Bie entrance
Every spring and autumn crowd gather to watch the equinox

The large flat rock at the back of the passage is raised up from the floor denoting a more sacred area.

"It is almost like a modern day church. The further back you go the more sacred and spiritual it gets and less people have access to it."

"There is a little terminal cell at the back, which may have housed an important object or person.

"The equinox sunrise concentrates initially in that area. This shaft of light perhaps symbolises bringing in new energy. It is all about rebirth and contact with the dead."

"Anyone who experiences it knows they have witnessed something really special. To think 6000 years ago there would have been people in here experiencing the same thing," Olga explained.

Again Olga can only hazard an educated guess as to the meaning of the rituals that went on all those thousands of years ago.

"We know there were little seeds placed on the cairn stones, so it may have been a plea to the gods for a good harvest," she said.

Best preserved

La Hougue Bie
The mound may have been used in a similar way to a modern day church

The human remains of about eight people - male and female adults - were found at the site. The items they were buried with are strong evidence in a belief in the afterlife.

"There were bones of cattle, which may have been left as food for the afterlife. There were also flint tools that show people believed they would need these things in the next world," Olga said.

Despite significant digs in the '90s, much of the site remains unexcavated. La Hougue Bie may reveal more of its secrets for future generations to wonder about.

"It is one of the best preserved and one of the largest Neolithic sites in western Europe, so Jersey is very lucky in that respect.

"It has almost cathedral status compared to other sites in the island. A lot of sites have been robbed or destroyed. We are very lucky to have it here in Jersey," Olga concluded.


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