Pierre-Roland Giot

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The Independent Online

Pierre-Roland Giot, geologist, anthropologist and historian: born Carolles, France 23 September 1919; Director, Circonscription d'Antiquités Préhistoriques 1947-72; Curator, Musée Préhistorique de Penmarc'h 1947-86; Director, Laboratoire d'Anthropologie, Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques, Rennes 1951-86; died Rennes, France 1 January 2002.

Pierre-Roland Giot dominated Breton archaeology for more than half a century.

Born in Normandy in 1919, the son of a French artist father and a British mother, he always liked to remind us that his mother tongue was English, confiding once that he regretted not having dual nationality. He liked writing in English and indeed his first book, on the prehistory of the Armorican peninsula, was Brittany, published in 1960 in Thames and Hudson's "Ancient Peoples and Places" series. It was not until 1979 that French readers had access to his two volumes dedicated to the prehistory of Brittany, Préhistoire de la Bretagne and Protohistoire de la Bretagne.

Most of his childhood was spent living near Paris; he was educated at the Lycée Hoche at Versailles and at the University of Paris, where he achieved a brilliant licence ès sciences. His early interest in geology led him to move to the University of Grenoble, to carry out research into the geology of the region of Chambéry. He had already become well acquainted, during his childhood, with Brittany, and later had carried out surveys of the monuments of La Forêt Fouesnant, and it was this subject that he made the focus of his doctoral thesis in Anthropology, "Armoricains et Bretons", presented at the University of Rennes in 1950.

Although a geologist by training, Giot moved with brilliance and ease into anthropology before accepting first the post of Assistant Director, then Director in 1947, of the newly established service for prehistoric antiquities covering the seven departements of Brittany and the lower Loire Valley. He embraced archaeological research with the same enthusiasm as others embrace holy orders, organising not only the administration but also, in 1951, setting up a research laboratory at the University of Rennes for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (he was one of the youngest maîtres de recherche in the CNRS) and instituting a programme of field excavations.

His interests were extremely wide. He was fascinated by the Celtic phenomenon, not hesitating to delve into the problems of Old Irish and, of course, the Breton language, which he understood. He also encouraged research in ethnography and in the monograph series "Travaux du Laboratoire d'Anthropologie", which he set up in 1957, he saw to the publication of the invaluable work of the late René-Yves Creston on Breton costumes.

From his first moments as director of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie in Rennes, Giot brought together a group of able young researchers. Giot realised that the best way to forge a team was to give it a common objective and the excavation of important French megalithic monuments provided the occasion.

Of the work undertaken at this time, the excavation of the great cairn of Barnenez, near Morlaix, was the one of which he was the most proud. This "Parthénon mégalithique", as Giot called it, which he rescued from destruction, excavated, restored and published, is justly famous throughout Europe. But there were other excavations such as those of Ile Guennoc, carried out under very difficult conditions, which influenced a whole generation of excavators. This denuded island, of some four hectares, was the scene of 12 years of excavation.

While much of Giot's field work was dominated by the increasing demands of rescue archaeology, he was deeply concerned with the development and application of scientific methods to archaeology. As a geologist, he was responsible for the first petrographic studies of neolithic stone axes in Brittany, identifying the sources of the stone most favoured and the later distribution of the finished products.

He was also involved with the first sedimentological studies of the quaternary period and was adviser to the radiocarbon laboratory at Gif-sur-Yvette, for several decades contributing to the annual reports of radiocarbon dates. In Rennes, he set up a spectrographic laboratory which carried out thousands of analyses on metal artefacts of the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods.

Giot had always been preoccupied with the problems surrounding the first Bretons, who, according to historical sources, had migrated to the Armorican peninsula from Britain. There was at that time no tangible evidence for the migration and no early Breton settlements or burials were known. Giot's strategy was direct.

He excavated two dark-age cemeteries, Saint Urnel in Finistère and that of Ile Lavret, Côtes d'Armor, and then plunged into the analysis of pottery, identifying the clay deposits and the types of tempering material that the Armorican potters had exploited, from the megalithic period up to the 19th century, at Saint-Jean-la-Poterie. Through this work Giot provided the impetus for the development of medieval archaeology.

The defining moment of the "nouvelle archéologie médiévale" in Brittany was Giot's publication in 1955 of a hitherto undated group of medieval pottery stored in the Musée Préhistorique de Saint Guénolé-Penmarc'h (of which he was curator). In an article, "Un type de céramique antique inédit de Cornouaille at d'ailleurs", published in the Annales de Bretagne, Giot produced a typology of forms and a map which showed that the distribution of the vessels centred on the ancient bishopric of Cornouaille in south Finistère. This was the domestic pottery of the first Bretons. Its exact chronology was not defined, but Giot continued to work on the problem.

In 1956, Yves Coppens extended the distribution map to the Morbihan and Giot's later work took the distribution north to the Pays de Léon and into Trégor. Subsequently, in 1971, he produced a synthesis of research, "La Céramique onctueuse de Cornouaille: contribution à l'étude de l'économie 'médiévale' " published in the Bulletin de la Société Archéologique, and the term "céramique onctueuse" (which he named on account of its soapy feel) has now entered permanently into Breton archaeological vocabulary.

The composition of the fabric was well defined and its production centre identified at Bodéres in the commune of Plounéour-Lanvern, Finistère. The distribution of the pottery extends as far as central Brittany and one piece even reached Dover, perhaps in a Breton ship. Even today the chronology has not been totally resolved, but Giot was a man who knew only too well that some answers would not be available during his lifetime.

Slowly and systematically, over a period of 50 years Giot built up an exceptional library of books, pamphlets and maps covering Brittany and the British Isles. Its scope embraced not only archaeology (a collection comparable to that of any respectable British university) but also anthropology, geology and scientific method. A large part of his salary was spent on buying new and second-hand books.

Giot's immense and far-ranging knowledge and his unparalleled library became a natural focus for innumerable scholars seeking advice in their careers, bibliographical research, thesis writing and monograph preparation or simply for the pleasure of encountering a personality of wide scientific wisdom and intellectual rigour. He was also consulted, more often than he would have wanted, on advice on how to untie the administrative knots binding certain ancient monuments.

After his retirement from the research laboratory in 1986, Giot continued his scientific work and bibliographical studies, publishing reviews, regional notices and articles on the history and the archaeology of Brittany. At the time of his death he was engaged, with colleagues, in writing a major book on early medieval Brittany, in English.

Michael Batt

 

Pierre-Roland Giot was a remarkable man – a polymath of immense learning and yet a shy and, one suspects, lonely individual whose sometimes irascible manner tended to unnerve the timid, writes Barry Cunliffe. Yet he was always prepared to share his knowledge with his colleagues and, indeed, anyone who sought advice.

He was probably at his best as a correspondent, writing long, helpful letters bristling with shrewd observations and invaluable references to obscure publications. He cherished his links with Britain and I particularly remember him, nearing his 80th year, as President of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, leading a summer field trip to the Iron Age promontory fort of Le Yaudet on the north Breton coast, forcing his way through tangled undergrowth and resplendent in his presidential chain of office and a stylish bright blue jacket, no doubt bought for the occasion. He was a man in his element.

The book he was writing on the origins of Brittany (with contributions from his colleagues Bernard Merdrignac and Philippe Guigon) displays Giot at his most typical – in command of a huge breadth of data, quirky in his presentation and, just occasionally, infuriating. There could be no better memorial to this great pioneer of Breton studies.

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