Rock art represents an important aspect of the Pre-Columbian heritage of the Lesser Antilles, where it appears, mainly, in the form of petroglyphs.
In Martinique, in the French West Indies, engraved rocks have been discovered at two sites: one is embedded in the lake forest of Le Galion, in Trinité (on the Atlantic coast), while the other is on the edge of the forest of Montravail, in Sainte-Luce (in the south of the island).
Unlike most of the sites of the same type, in the Lesser Antilles, the engraved rocks of Montravail are neither associated with the coast nor with a stream or river. They are located 3.5 km from the coastline, on the top of a hill, at an altitude of about 200 m. This area offers a spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea, Diamond Rock (the most emblematic islet of Martinique) and Morne Larcher (an extinct volcano, popularly called “the lying woman”).
The rock art of Montravail has been reported to the Departmental museum of archaeology of Martinique in 1970, by the academic Jean Crusol. It has been published for the first time in 1973, by Mario Mattioni, who then managed the museum. Subsequently, it has motivated various archaeological studies, in particular, those by Henry Petitjean Roget (1975a, b), Cornelis N. Dubelaar (1995), Sofia Jönsson Marquet (2002) and Fabrice Casagrande (2008, 2014). Casagrande dug test pits at the site, in 2007, as part of a mission of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP, in French).
The petroglyphs have been made by pecking-hammering, on five andesite boulders distributed on a surface of some 220 m². They represent 16 very simplified human faces, showing the eyes, generally the mouth and sometimes the nose; a few are surmounted by motifs difficult to interpret. The main rock, which measures approximately 1.50 x 1.70 m, alone gathers twelve faces; eleven of them occupy a great, smooth surface, produced by the natural breaking off of a block.
This kind of stylized face is a recurrent theme in the rock art of the Lesser Antilles. Actually, the composition of the main rock of Montravail evokes other sites of the area, such as those of Trois-Rivière and Rivière du Plessis, in Guadeloupe, Stone Fort River in Saint Kitts or Yambou, in Saint Vincent; yet, the comparisons could be extended to South America, or even Central America. If we go into the details, we note that a trident-shaped mouth symbol, from the iconographic repertoire of Montravail, is also found among the petroglyphs of Le Galion.
The archaeological zone of Montravail includes, moreover, three boulders with cup marks of different sizes. These curious artificial depressions often accompany the Antillean rock art. They are traditionally interpreted as polishers, serving for the completion of blades, axes and objects of shell, but they could also be used as grindstones, mortars or recipients for various substances.
The ceramics uncovered by Casagrande in 2007, and the analogies between the iconography of the petroglyphs and that of certain vessels, seem to indicate that the site was occupied during the Middle/Late Cedrosan Saladoid phase (end of the 4th – beginning of the 8th century). Then, it would bear witness to the Saladoid culture, which developed along the Orinoco River (Venezuela) and the north coast of South America, before spreading across the Antillean archipelago, from the 5th century BC on. The bearers of this culture had an egalitarian social organization, whose framework limited itself to the village. Their subsistence depended, especially, on agriculture. But the nature of the occupation of the Pre-Columbian site of Montravail remains mysterious, in the absence of known traditions or testimonies, relating to the remnants. Nevertheless, we can reasonably suppose that the engravings were linked to ritual practices.
Nowadays, the authorities and the public show a particular interest in this Amerindian heritage. In 1996, the engraved rocks were inscribed on the National Register of Historical Monuments of France; four years ago, they were the object of an expert assessment and a cleaning by two members of the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory, Stéphanie Touron and Geneviève Orial, in response to a request of the town council of Sainte-Luce.
The town council purchased the land of the rocks in 2009, with the purpose of promoting cultural tourism there. In 2012, a modern monumental sculpture referring to the petroglyphs was inaugurated at the roundabout of Anse Mabouya, on the National Road 5, by the Mayor of Sainte-Luce, Louis Crusol, and the President of the agglomeration community of Espace Sud Martinique, Eugène Larcher. The same year, the municipality of Sainte-Luce put the research unit EA 929 AIHP – GEODE, of the University of the Antilles and Guyana, in charge of the conception of a cultural park and an interpretative center of the Montravail site. This mission in conducted along with works of the National Forests Office of France, aiming to enhance the departmental-national forest of Montravail, which extends over 70 ha.
As for the rest, the tourist promotion of the engraved rocks of Sainte-Luce will be destined to fit into broader projects –for example, a trip of the Pre-Columbian archaeology of Martinique, which would connect the site of Montravail, that of Le Galion, the “polisher” rock of Macouba, the vast site of Vivé (Le Lorrain), the Ecomuseum of Martinique (Rivière-Pilote) and the Departmental museum of archaeology and prehistory (Fort-de-France); and a route of the petroglyphs of the Lesser Antilles (Petitjean Roget 2010).
Written by Sébastien Perrot-Minnot, PhD in Archaeology
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