What did the Gauls ever do for us?


The Gauls left surprisingly few visible marks on the French landscape, despite controlling an area covering most of modern day France (including the village of Forges-Les-Eaux) from the 5th century BC to the arrival of the Romans in 58 to 51 BC.  Rather unsurprisingly, then, until the late 18th century, they were considered to be hairy, illiterate, warlike and pagan forest-dwellers, living off berries and hunting, just waiting from the arrival of the Romans… and proper buildings.

But this grain of beech pollen proves them wrong.

Featured in one of seven hands-on workshops at The Incredible Gauls exhibition at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, which runs until September 2012, it reveals the work of one of archaeology’s unsung heroes: palynologists. Specialists in pollen, palynologists can instantly visualise an ancient landscape simply by looking at pollen under a microscope. They can also compare pollen numbers over the centuries or even millennia (pollen can survive for millions of years in damp ground).

When palynologists look at pollen from Forges-Les-Eaux, they see a dramatic drop in the number of beech trees, and other species of trees, around the time of the Gauls, who were obviously busy felling them to make way for fields and to forge iron tools, which were vital to farmers in the 2nd century BC.

Few tools were more vital than the one actually invented by the Gauls – the scythe. Like the modern combine harvester, it allowed farmers to harvest crops much faster,  leaving them free to do other things, like inventing the wooden barrel. Incredibly, none of the tools on display at this exhibition – hoes, pruning implements, sheers, sickles and ploughs – changed much until the late 18th century. So much for embarrassing ancestors.


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