Archive for May 2008

Ceramic finds   Leave a comment

Following my discovery of various pieces of ceramic, I have taken expert advice and returned them to their original location. It seems I should not have moved them at all, but in my excitement – these were my first ever finds! – I overlooked the obvious ramifications. I’ve written to S.E.S.A. [Société d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’ Aude] of which I’m a member, for a meeting. And to the Mayor of the nearest village, and to the owner of the land.

The find consists of four pieces of a large amphora [date not established], one section of a flat-bottomed urn and handle-stump of similar composition and thickness, one section of a tegula [thick roof-tile] and one unidentified object. It is possible that I have discovered a Gallo-Roman site.

Photos of the pieces, with measurements, are on the Ceramic Finds Page.

Posted May 24, 2008 by MH in ceramic, languedoc

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The Father of Prehistory – Tournal and his Grotte   3 comments

With diesel costing close to €1.50 I’m having to justify my forays around the region. Mary can go off painting en plein air and return with the best part of €500-worth of art, but I just take snaps of old stones. Or sometimes nothing at all, having been defeated by my own map-reading or by the terrain itself, or by there actually being nothing left to find. However, since a recent hunting-and-gathering expedition bagged a big amphora from just up the road, Mary has been more warmly supportive about my mania, and comes out most times with something more than just weary resignation.

Most of the sites I’ve covered on this blog have been within a half-hour-drive : so a trip of 40 km. to see an oppidum – Le Caylar, near Agel – whose vestiges have all but vanished and about which I could find no archeological information, was a luxury or a delusion. I justified it by adding in a visit to a well-known prehistoric spot: La Grotte de Bize.

Were I simply writing a diary, I could call this cave anything I liked. But since I am also trying to win friends and influence people – particularly that augúst body of savants at the Megalithic Portal – I have to treble-check my facts. ‘So where are we off to this time?’ she asks. ‘Not sure – I think it’s the Grotte de Bize. Or the Grotte de Bixe – the IGN website has both. Depends on how close you zoom.’ I was trying for Technical but it came out Lame. ‘How close are we going to zoom? You do know where it is, I presume?’ The tone must be familiar to many. ‘Not really – because there’s a Grotte de Lasfonds, and a Grotte de Las Fons, or Les Fonts, which are right by a farm called Lasfonds – or les Fontaines on the older map – and they could both be La Grotte des Moulins, or du Moulin – but they are probably all the Grotte de Tournal, since he found it in 1827.’ Some silences have tones as well. ‘ . . . and has anyone found it since then?’ ‘Well I suppose so – it’s really well-known.’ We were parked by now in a lay-by at about where I thought it could be. But there was no sign and no path. We headed off anyway since I’m an optimist, and the faintly flattened grass did turn into a track through the trees, which brought us to this.

It was here in 1827 that the 22-year-old chemistry student Paul Tournal of Narbonne found the first ever fossilized human bones. He was a keen and observant amateur geologist who roamed the hills of the Minervois and the Corbières whenever he returned from his studies in Paris. His focus soon shifted from pure geology to archaeology : to the place humans occupied in that ancient landscape. To his enquiring and forward-thinking mind, these fossils were proof that mankind was older than 5000 years, and that the Bible had no place in science. At 28 he was one of the founder-members of la Commission Archéologique et Littéraire de Narbonne, remaining its Secretary his whole life, and establishing museums and repositories in the town. He became a journalist and thinker, based in Paris and strongly influenced by the progressive ideas of the ‘Saint-Simeonist’ group. Ahead of its time in advocating equality between the sexes, free-love and socialism – this movement took its energy from the industrial revolution – which had fascinated Paul Tournal on a visit to England in 1839. He believed that he was living through a period of enormous advancement and that networks both physical such as the railways and economic through government, would revolutionise the inequalities and restraints that ordinary people suffered.

Perhaps, by simply being French, he has never been accorded the international acclaim he rightly deserved, as one of the founders of the science of prehistory. The French Wikipedia – – doesn’t recognize him either, and he merits a mere two paragraphs in the Narbonne-wiki. After all – it’s just fossicking about with old bones and old stones.

For more cheery news about the contents of La Grande Grotte de Bize – for that I firmly assert is its real name – at least so called by the team of archaeologists that surveyed it, led by André Tavoso in 1987, to differenciate it from La Petite Grotte de Bize, just a few hundred metres up the road, which was searched by Dominique Sacchi in 1967 [ who manages to call the bigger grotte – Tournal’s one – La Grotte de Tournai . . . ] – for more info and photos – of an endangered bat, and a terrified woman – and a Very Important Notice – please continue over on La Grande Grotte de Tournal à Bize Page.

And the Le Caylar oppidum? We were defeated by the sheer verticality of the cliff – plus the fact that I had picked the wrong side to climb up. I’m saving up a few bob for the next attempt.

Posted May 19, 2008 by MH in bats, cave, grotte, languedoc, minervois, prehistory, Uncategorized

Hillfort, Ringfort – or Oppidum?   Leave a comment

Getting the names right for things is sometimes difficult enough in your own language, let alone a foreign one. The bulk of this post and the Page that accompanies it – I ‘double-up’ in order to make finding places on the blog easier – is my translation of the summary of Jean Vaquer’s 4-year work at the site. And the first problem encountered is what to call such a site. Une enceinte annulaire du Néolithique final is the title he gives it – but when Google Translator returned with ‘A pregnant annular Neolithic’ , I realised I was going to have to do it the long way.
This site is one of ‘six enceintes à large fossé ‘- ‘six pregnant wide gap’? Or a hillfort? An oppidum? A defensive enclosure? A circular ditch-and-dyke encampment?
Vaquer himself, in an academic paper, calls it ‘a fortified languedocian late neolithic site’ – which is the bare minimum. I will call it variously a hillfort, as it is located on a hill though modest at 112 metres/350 ft. and it is fortified with two concentric earth-banks and a wide ditch plus wooden palissade [palisade,or fence] – a ringfort, and a defensive enclosure. For as I soon realised – this structure was unlike any other in the region: certainly no ordinary encampment/habitation and no proto trading-village or oppidum, which were built over a thousand years later – though often confusingly, but not surprisingly, on the same site.
Jean Vaquer’s research has revealed a unique example of Neolithic architecture in southern France.

Simulation et modélisation architecturale: Patrick Pérez et Frédéric Lesueur

Continued, with more photos, plans and text, on the Mourral-Millegrand Ringfort Page.

The oppidum in Languedoc   Leave a comment

The word is derived from the early Latin ob-pedum: ‘enclosed space’, and possibly from the Proto-Indo-European ‘pedóm-‘ , an occupied space or footprint.
Julius Caesar described the larger Celtic Iron Age settlements he encountered in Gaul as oppida and the term is now used to describe the large pre-Roman towns that existed all across Western and Central Europe. Many oppida grew from hill forts but not all of them had defensive functions. The main features of the oppida are the architectural construction of the walls and gates, the spacious layout and commanding view of the surrounding area.
The development of oppida was a milestone in the urbanisation of the continent as they were the first large settlements north of the Mediterranean that could genuinely be described as towns. Caesar pointed out that each tribe of Gaul would have several oppida but that they were not all of equal importance, perhaps implying some form of hierarchy.

Hillforts, enclosures, defensive spurs, walls and ditches do not spring up in times of ease and peaceable neighborliness. It is during times of fear and uncertainty that massive effort is demanded of the local populace – producing, in our small area of the Aude, many significant ‘proto-castles’ during the transitional period Bronze final/ Premier Age de Fer.
The uncertainty must have started with the collapse of the Minoan civilisation, and again when vital trading links were lost with the end of the Mycenean empire. This Dark Age lasted for over three centuries. The fear? Rumours of a north-eastern race that were armed with new weapons and new skills: The Volques Tectosages and their Iron – the coming of the Celts.
Our local autocthones [native inhabitants] were the ‘peuples élisyques’ – a tribe centred on the Montlaurès hill-settlement, above the lagoons surrounding modern Narbonne – called by the Greek traders, Hélicé. South of here towards Spain were the Iberic tribes, and east towards Italy were the Ligurians. Herodotus of Halicarnassus writing in the 5th C BCE in his History [ Book 7 ch. 165] writes of a mercenary army made up of Phoenicians, Lybians, Iberians, Ligurians, Elysics, Sards [of Sardinia], and Cyrnians [Corsicans] – that is, all the tribes around the Gulf of Lion and the western Mediterranean.

For centuries preceeding the arrival of the Celts, the Elisycs ruled from Narbonne in the east to Carcassonne in the west. A short stretch of territory but an area that was rich in mineral wealth and full of cultural and historical wealth: the biggest dolmens, menhirs and necropoli in Languedoc. For millennia this land had been a benign and peaceable trading corridor : Pyrennean sheep herds in transhumance arriving from the South, Cornish tin and Irish silver in transit from the North, Cypriot copper and Greek wine in boats from the sea. All had to pass the marshy plain of the Atax/Attagus – the River Aude – between the foothills of the Montagnes Noires and the massif of Mont Alaric and the Corbieres Hills. All benefited from the mineral wealth – the gold and manganese – and the metallurgic skills of the local tribes. And from the peace and stability that had held since the Copper Age.
The breakdown of this civilisation led to the Dark Ages : the elaborately decorated pottery, the exchange of ornaments from afar, as evinced in funerary goods – gave way to a cruder and unadorned ceramic style, and to the rise of warrior classes and a heirarchy of power and protection.
Thus a series of proto-castles were constructed around -800 by the Elisyan people, on promontories that allowed commanding views out over the plain and the road and river traffic, and security from attack by means of massive earth- and stone-works. From the oppida by the sea at Peyriac-de-Mer and Pech Maho in the east, past the the two vast settlements at Montlaurès and Ensérune, to La Moulinasse at Salles d’Aude, and on west inland to one of the greatest settlement-towns of the hinterland : La Cayla at Mailhac. And thence to Mourrel-Ferret at Olonzac, Camp Rolland here above our village of Moux, and onward to the Cros hill fort at Caulnes-Minervois and the Millegrand oppidum at Trebes – with Carsac at Carcassonne at the eastern limit. The pattern continues up towards the Atlantic coast – all defending and provisioning the vital trade route to the North.
It was however the Volques Tectosages themselves, centred on Toulouse, who took them over and re-established the trading-routes, ceding them eventually to the Romans – who made good use of some of them, while razing others to the ground.

There are six main oppida here in The Aude – follow the links in the Pages panel to the right. The Cros Hillfort and the Pic St-Martin hillfort have already been published there – the Roc Gris oppidum will be next, followed by the Mourrel-Ferrat oppidum. More to follow.