Thursday 20 May 2010, 17:40

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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A few weeks ago the man who held the key to one of the great mysteries of Western Europe died.

He was called Emile Fradin. He was a farmer in France in a village called Glozel near the town of Vichy. And he was 103 years old.

His story is extraordinary. Back in the 1920s Emile Fradin was working in a field when one of his cows stumbled into an underground chamber. It was full of strange objects - human bones with strange markings on them, human masks, hermaphrodite idols with phalluses on their head. And most mysterious of all - square clay tablets inscribed with an unknown language.

Here is a picture of a young Emile Fradin

Fradin then allowed anyone to come and dig in his field - and after a while everyone began to find more and more strange objects - thousand and thousands of them.

It caused a sensation. Some leading archaeologists said they were genuine artifacts from the Neolithic period. Other - equally eminent - archaeologists insisted that they were fake. Emile Fradin stuck to his story. He sued the head of the Louvre for defamation. The head of the French Prehistoric Society persuaded the police to raid Fradin's farmhouse. He was charged with fraud, but nothing was proved.

At the heart of the mystery was the strange language. If the clay tablets were really from the Neolithic period then they predated the Phoenician characters from which western alphabets are supposed to have come.

And that would mean that the cradle of human civilisation was not the Middle East as everyone supposed, but Glozel - Emile Fradin's village.

No-one knows whether the find was one of the greatest frauds ever. Or whether Emile Fradin's stumbling cow revealed that much of what we believe about our ancient past is wrong. And now the only person who knows the truth has died.

Here is part of a film made by the BBC in 1974 about the mystery.

The characters are like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. It is full of obsessive and strange people from the world of archaeology including Emile Fradin himself. But it is dominated by the wonderful figure of Dorothy Garrod. She was the world's leading archaeologist in the 1930s and the first woman professor in Cambridge. She spent her time in the 1920s and 30s leading expeditions through Palestine and Kurdistan.

Here she is in 1913.

I also love the way the film is made. It is a documentary style that is now completely lost to television (but it is beginning to re-emerge in some of the whimsical independent movies in Hollywood - like Wes Anderson). You could describe it as anti-style. Everyone is interviewed with a light firmly fixed in front of them, all the shots are completely functional and unstylised. I particularly love the shot of four eminent archaeologists arriving together in a 1970s car at Monsieur Fradin's farmhouse - all determined to destroy him (in their pompous archaeological way).

And to top it all there is some beautiful, obsolete 1970s technology.

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    Comment number 1.

    Great story, and I love the title.

    Tried to look around for some info on this story. So far only found one newspaper article, an obituary for Fradin, and a site in French which seems like it has some small pics of the language on the tablets.

    One thing that interests me is the seeming back-and-forth of accusations of forgery, and assurances of the sites integrity, between different parties. In the newspaper article there are allusions to an argument between Fradin and Abbé Henri Breuil, a leading archaeologist, but it doesn't give any details. It also mentions Emile Esperandieu who apparently speculated on the point AC makes about "that would mean that the cradle of human civilisation was not the Middle East as everyone supposed, but Glozel - Emile Fradin's village".

    My gut feeling is it's doubtful. I would love it to be true just for the story. I also wonder what kind of impact that might have on the Abrahamic religions as well. There seems to have been a mean-spiritedness towards the Glozel find, I wonder more broadly how much this site being verified as containing Neolithic items threated the established archaeological intelligensia. Maybe it was just jealously. What is clear is the people involved actually couldn't verify it's integrity, yet made absolute statements about it.

    Looking forward to checking the film when I get in from work. Thanks Adam.

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    Comment number 2.

    There's a quite good Wikipedia article on Glozel, fairly neutrally written, with some good links out to the weird and wonderful world of the Web (including here!)

    I do miss this style of documentary making, almost everything from the 70s stands up in its peculiarly distanced point of view, removing any possibility of drama and replacing it with, for want of a better word, a picaresque narrative and narrator.

    (Though I don't think I need to lecture Adam Curtis on that...)

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    Comment number 3.

    I especially enjoyed the last ten minutes. The comportment, attire and speech patterns of those archeologists are shot through with a certain period (and a certain class of people) in a way written materials could never show.

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    Comment number 4.

    This is a good site to go to :

    It took a while to unearth the full secrets and story of Stonehenge and to unravel the Rosetta Stone so I'm sure a reasonably complete answer to Glozel will open up in the fullness of time. Religious worship is inevitably always at the heart of archeological understanding.

    I would recommend the brilliant THE ORIGIN OF CONCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND by Julian Jaynes for an interesting interpretation of our recent past...and how we used to think.

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    Comment number 5.

    Having just flipped my way through 100+ tv channels without finding a single thing worth watching it made me sad to be reminded of this excellent series. Would that programmes of this nature were still being made


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