Émile Fradin (1904-2010)

Émile Fradin (1904-2010), holding a copy of the then recently published book that caused his notoriety

An unusual discovery

In 1924, Émile Fradin (1906-2010), a seventeen-year-old farmer’s son from le Glozel, an obscure hamlet in the Département de l’Allier (France) stumbled upon one of the most contentious archaeological discoveries ever made. A cow in the herd he was minding fell part of the way into a hole in a field a short distance from the farm. On extricating the beast from the hole, Fradin and his family discovered a brick-lined pit. They excavated a roughly oval feature (referred to in the literature as the fosse ovale), in which some of the bricks appeared to have a strange glaze. They also found a human skull and a series of puzzling artefacts, including carved bones, carved pebbles, pots and clay tablets with mysterious symbols on them.

Knowledge of the finds grows

Puzzled by the finds, the local teacher lent Émile books on archaeology, in which he found drawings of prehistoric objects that resembled those from his father’s field. Eventually, the site came to the attention of Dr Antonin Morlet (1882-1965), a keen amateur archaeologist, who began more extensive excavations across the field, eventually deciding that Émile had found a Neolithic site of unusual – even unique – character.

Morlet was quick to publish his discoveries, bringing them to the attention of the French academic community. There was instant outrage at the nature of the finds, which resembled no known Neolithic remains from France (or anywhere, for that matter) and which appeared to some to be crude modern forgeries, made by somebody with little or no archaeological knowledge. The finger of suspicion was pointed at the young Émile, who maintained throughout his long life that he had no part in their manufacture, that they were found in the field (which acquired the new name of le Champ des Morts, The Field of the Dead) and that the site was the prehistoric occupation site Dr Morlet claimed it to be.

Attempts to solve the mystery

Glozel in 2002

The landscape at Glozel in 2002

Two investigative commissions were formed to examine the site, which they declared to be fraudulent. A police raid on the Fradin’s farm was said – incorrectly and maliciously – to have produced half-finished “finds”, destined to salt the field. Émile responded with a counter-attack for defamation of character and the whole situation degenerated into an indescribable mess. The Fradins set up a small museum beside their farmhouse to display the more than two thousand objects from le Champ des Morts, which helped bring in extra money to the family. The academic world decided that the site was not worth wasting time on and that it was a crude fraud perpetrated by Émile Fradin; to this day, few people in the archaeological establishment are prepared even to discuss the site.

There the whole Affaire Glozel might have rested, had Hugh McKerrell and colleagues not decided to test ceramics from the site with the newly-developed thermoluminescent dating technique in the early 1970s. To the scientists’ surprise, the objects tested did not produce dates in the 1920s, but they did not produce Neolithic dates, either. Instead, they seemed to date from the Late Iron Age and Gallo-Roman periods (roughly 200 BCE to 400 CE). The reaction of the establishment was to suspect the dates (thermoluminescence was still new at the time) and to continue to ignore the site. However, over the next few years, a series of Colloques was held by the newly-formed Les Amis de Glozel (Friends of Glozel), which served as a talking-shop for archaeologists, scientists and amateurs who were interested in re-opening discussion of the finds. A battery of new tests were carried out and old, unpublished data collated.

A bizarre ceramic with "letters" and face from Glozel

A bizarre ceramic with “letters” and face from Glozel

Suggestions were raised that, in addition to the Iron Age and Gallo-Roman occupation, held to be responsible for the ceramics and inscribed tablets, there was unusual medieval activity associated with the initial discovery of the oval feature, which was almost certainly a twelfth- or thirteenth-century glass kiln, and early post-medieval activity involving human burial. In this scenario, the carved bones were of medieval date and the symbols on them copied from the Gallo-Roman tablets.

Present orthodox opinion

Unsurprisingly, the academic establishment has not responded to the new data. A trial excavation carried out on the site in 1983 failed to produce any archaeological material and, although no official report was ever produced, a summary made available in the 1990s dismissed the site. Looking at the bizarre and almost unparalleled artefacts from Glozel, it is difficult not to agree with this assessment. The engraved objects look like childish twentieth-century attempts to produce Palaeolithic-style objects; the inscriptions on the tablets look like jumbles of random symbols taken from examples of different ancient scripts; the pots are so poorly made and under-fired that it is difficult to see how they can have been produced by competent potters; the early post-medieval human remains are just collections of bones from the skull and femora, not burials at all; no recognisably Iron Age or Gallo-Roman artefacts (pottery, coins, brooches etc.) have ever been found at the site; the inscribed pebbles are without convincing parallel.

And yet the thermoluminescent dates are troubling. Taken on their own, they could be viewed as suggesting that something strange was going on at le Glozel at the close of the first millennium BCE. Perhaps, as Alice Gerard has suggested in Bones of Contention (2005), they were hurriedly-made ritual objects for use in an obscure and local cult; perhaps the medieval material represents a survival of that cult or its imaginative revival; perhaps the site is real after all. Certainly, Émile Fradin maintained his innocence until his death at the advanced age of 103 and refused to accept even the late dates provided by thermoluminescence, insisting that ‘his’ site was a real Neolithic settlement.