Archive for November 2008

Mapping history, and naming two dolmens.   2 comments

Is it so strange to have a favourite map? Like a special book or painting it may be rich in personal connections and memories – but it must also have its own autonomous beauty.

The old West Cork map – number 24 in the Suirbhéireacht Ordanáis (Ordinance Survey) is the one for me. I lived in it and with it for 25 years – as an unsuccessful hippy, and much later as a more convincing seakayaker.

Its scale is 1:126,720 or 1/2 inch to 1 mile. It was part of a resurvey of the entire country of Ireland begun in 1887 and completed in 1913, comprising over 18,000 maps. The new Discovery series is an anaemic shadow of the richly coloured and detailed earlier series – which was itself a reduced version of the original.

‘Irish Ordnance Survey began the world’s first large-scale mapping of an entire country in 1820. It took 22 years. It was a remarkable feat by remarkable men and the accuracy they attained is still marvelled at today. The process involved both innovation and ingenuity. For example, to establish an accurate “baseline” for the entire survey Lt. Colby developed a measuring system which incorporated two parallel bars of different types of metals.
Once the baseline was established, the surveyors used triangulation between mountain tops to create a framework of reference points for the entire country. Some of the sides of the primary triangles were over 150 kilometres in length. To spot points accurately at such great distances Lt. Col. Thomas Drummond devised the intensely bright limelight – which later became popular as a means of stage lighting.’

Every road and track, every stone wall and hedge, every river and stream from Fair Head to Mizen Head and from Howth Head to Slyne Head was surveyed and mapped with a level of precision never seen before.
‘Between 1857 and 1879 a scale of 1:500, or 10 foot to one mile, was introduced for many urban areas. But in the 1870s the Ordnance Survey stopped including interior walls of buildings in its surveys, except for important public buildings. Some other small features, such as flower beds and isolated trees, also disappeared.’ [OS Ireland]

Here in France a somewhat similar reduction has been taking place in the successive IGN map series – incomprehensible considering the level of technical sophistication we now possess. I have noted with regret, the ‘disappearance’ or displacement of megaliths in the new Série Bleue – but happily it is not all a one-way track.

A delightful feature of IGN’s online mapping service is that as one zooms out from the detailed modern map one encounters the older 1967 version, with its mellower colours and dated fonts. It is usually at this ‘level’ that one finds the dolmens and menhirs, avens and grottes that had been omitted from the modern map. But just recently I found the process in reverse.

I went to visit a well-known dolmen just across the valley, at Villeneuve-Minervois. The problem was that it was well-known under two different names : the Dolmen du Palet de Roland , and the Dolmen de la Jargantière . Unfortunately neither name appeared on my older series paper map. What was marked there was Dolmen du Vieil Homme (which I’ve elsewhere seen as Dolmen de la Val d’Homps ). I had come across all these names separately, over a period of months – and for a while naively thought there must be a nest of dolmens over there.

So I was both amazed and delighted to find on arriving there – that there were two dolmens, a few hundred metres apart. The second one was not on my old map, nor on the site – or at least not at the zoom level I’d looked at. There was a Roque Traucade alright, but it wasn’t until I zoomed in that the Dolmen Roquo Traoucado appeared. At this ‘level’ the  Dolmen du Vieil Homme had disappeared, to be replaced with Dolmen du Palet de Roland . The difference between the two spellings of this ‘split rock’ has political and cultural significance : the modern map has extricated the names from a nationalising, Parisian grip –  and returned them to their regional Occitan origins.

Now that I have the actual dolmens sorted out, my problem remains – what do I call them? I would normally defer to The Captain at Megalithic Portal – except that he has one tagged as La Jagartiere (presumably based on Bruno Marc’s usually accurate guide-book, and the website This spelling occurs solely at this site, while la Jargantière occurs in six online references. The other he calls Roque Traoucado – which is a cobbling of French and Occitan, and does not exist on either map. Incidentally, there seems to be no such place as la Jargantière on any map on- or off-line. It’s a word with no other connections – toponymical, etymological, or historical. To me it speaks of a Gargantua, a female giant – and gets my vote.

In addition, the French national guide to the region, Le Bison Futé, calls it them Les dolmens de la Vallée d’Homps et de Roquetraoucade. Unfortunately, the modern map spells it Val d’Houms – again an important return to the Occitan. Houms, by the way are olmes, which are elms. L’Homme Mort turns up so frequently in the maps that I began to worry – but it was the elm that died there, not the man.

The name-game continues when a search for the necessary nearby cave or grotte is started. For in the immediate vicinity there’s a rash of candidates : la grotte de la Gaougno and la grotte de Buffens, la Balme Pretchadouire, la Grotte du Figuier, and la Balme Sabatière. Not to leave out the Barrenc de Villegause – black spots on the modern map but absent from the older. To even things up, a number of unnamed grottes scattered to the NE of Caulnes are there on the old – but not marked on the new.

Note that caouno or caougno is Occitan or Catalan (cavern in English) while caune is the French – as in the name of that nearby village: Caunes), and balma is Occitan, while balme is a frenchified version. Barrenc however is one of our very own local words – and means aven (French) and avenc (Occitan) and which probably has a speleological equivalent in English. Think : ‘a vent’ as in a sudden large black vertical hole on a mountain –

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

And thus many hours may pass, shuffling the words about, furling and unfurling the maps – on a wet and windy weekend.

If you think names and dates and toponymy don’t matter (or they interest you as much as me) then this study is recommended :-

Landscapes of power in nineteenth century Ireland: Archaeology and Ordnance Survey maps. SMITH A.

The British Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland in the nineteenth-century was an official systematic survey which created a picture document of the landscape and the past. While the maps influenced the institutionalization of archaeology, the documenting of an archaeological record on the maps shaped their look and language. Within a setting of the political contest between British colonialism and Irish nationalism, both the Ordnance Survey maps and the archaeological past they recorded became powerful tools that helped to construct Irish identity and a sense of place and heritage.

Archaeological dialogues   ISSN 1380-2038  1998, vol. 5, no 1, pp. 30-53 (2 p), pp. 69-84 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Oh – and what to call the two dolmens? Whatever my personal preferences may be – I’m with the new série bleue cartographer who faced the same decision. Give regionalism its voice for one, and let popularism keep the other.  The names have to be what are on the current map – the one you can buy at the local tabac, the one you can zoom in close to. All the other names don’t really exist – except in some layer of history.

So for some actual hard facts, photos and info – go to the Roquo Traoucado Dolmen Page, and the (silly, cod-historical) Palet de Roland Dolmen Page. (Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, never set foot here – let alone made this his bed). But that’s History for you – take part in writing it, or it’ll get written for you.

Dolmen de Boun Marcou   Leave a comment

When I first started exploring this whole area around Mailhac, and learnt that an oppidum was not a Roman fort but a Chalcolithic hill settlement, and that there was not just one but three necropoli, and that there existed a cave by a spring, and that there was a dolmen there too, and that the whole affair had been evolving and developing for a thousand years – I realised that getting all the information and photos and maps for the whole complex was going to stretch my abilities at ‘blorganisation’.

And so it proved : there are now posts and pages that don’t seem to come in any order, nor seem shaped in any cohesive way. I’m more of a reader than a librarian or a methodical historian. I’m hoping the tags will sort it all out, and that the grouping of all the topics under a ‘parent page’ will gather most of it together.

And consistent with this inconsistency, I shall now introduce the writer who introduced me to the whole subject of protohistory – who, fittingly was not an archaeologist at all, but an American and a poet : Gustaf Sobin. The book is ‘Luminous Debris. Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc’. It was a propitious find in a Carcassonne second-hand bookshop. It is by turns dense, lively, academic, joyful – his chapter on Mailhacian pottery and its pictographs was exhilarating speculation and has inspired in me what I hope will be a life-long interest.

It sent me immediately to search the Internet – where I found references to the ‘vieux village ‘, and to the Grotte de Treille , and finally to the dolmen of Boun Marcou on a small hill called Trigodinnas, right next to Lou Cayla.


View from the chevet or headstone, to the foot.

For more on this go to Boun Marcou dolmen, Mailhac Page.

The Fournès dolmen and menhir and how to tell them apart.   Leave a comment

Up ’til this morning I was unaware of the existence of Fournès-Cabardès ( the difference, were you wondering, between è and é, is that between the vowel-sounds of ‘may’ and ‘egg’. Not a lot to us, but of great matter to the French. Say ‘may’ and your jaw drops – say ‘egg’ and your mouth widens. Crucial. If you live here).

I was living in happy ignorance also, that there were two megaliths close-by. But now that I have been there and seen them I am no longer happy – because They, the French mapmakers IGN, have got the pair of megaliths all wrong, back-asswards, vice-versa and widdershins.


The Captain, over at Megalithic Portal, of course had it right all along : the site to the west marked dolmen, is in fact a 4 metre long monolith, fallen half out of a fearsome-looking entrance hole to Hades.


While the Pierre Plantée (stretch the mouth just a leetel wider . . . ) with its massive cap-stone, and solitary orthostat, and S-W orientation, better merits the name dolmen.


I’m not sure how The Captain came upon the reference to Peyregat menhir – because there’s no such place in the region – but somewhere in the archives of the Carcassonne scientific society  SESA of which I am a member, there are photos which I will unearth asap : Fournes-Cabardès – Menhir couché au lieudit Peyregat. Vues du nord-ouest et du sud-est, 8 x 11 cm, photographies de Germain Sicard prises le 9 mars 1897.

But for more modern photos and info on this impressive stone – look in the Peyregat Menhir Page.

For more of the same on the Fournès ( jaw just a leetel lower . . . ) dolmen – go to the Fournès Dolmen Page. Lesson concluded, you may relax now.

Lou Cayla, Mailhac : one of The High Places   Leave a comment

Les hauts lieux.

French is an impoverished language. Its dictionaries are a third smaller than ours, but it still manages to be poetic and expressive. So when I say I’ve just visited one of ‘les hauts lieux ‘ I don’t mean an arduous climb. I’ve just explored one of the great places in the south of France – massive, significant and important. But for all this it is still a low-lying, modest site with little to distinguish it from the landscape around.


The story is both extraordinary and humdrum. A fourteen-year-old girl, Odette Taffanel, begins to find things in her family’s vineyards in 1929. After the War, in 1948, she starts taking it seriously. In the 50’s she ropes in her younger brother Jean. Their work together unearths one of the biggest late bronze/early iron age sites in the Midi. Archaeologists flock to the site, and careers are made. She is awarded the Legion d’Honneur . The site and its findings are considered so significant that ‘Mailhacais’ becomes a benchmark for pottery and funerary rites in the Urn-Field culture of southern France. At 93, she is still writing and publishing – and still receiving visitors at her house in the village.


Photo of a grave emplacement – Necropolis  Bassin 1

But the story of Lou Cayla goes back further than the Ancien Village – it starts with water from an abundant spring, a grotto, and a dolmen, all on the same small insignificant hill.

For more info and photos on all these aspects, see the Lou Cayla Parent Page.

Andorra: a megalith-free zone?   3 comments

We visit Andorra 3-4 times a year to see friends in Arinsal and walk the mountains. Since our friends are not as ‘stone mad’ as me, I have so far not suggested we go hunting for megaliths. But last weekend I persuaded them that it might be interesting to go looking for dolmens and menhirs – and so I checked on the Megalithic Portal map – where I found a big blank space – not a single mention! I thought I must have made some mistake, so I began searching the Net – but the only information I found was on the blogs of David Gálvez Casellas and Jordi Casamajor. And the news was not good : there are, it seems, no megaliths in Andorra.
David is a teacher and journalist, and Jordi a sculptor and graphic artist, whose interest in rock carvings has taken him all over the Pyrennees. His blog documents his researches, which reveal that while Andorra may be poor in dolmens and menhirs – it is rich in cupulas and carvings, from the late Neolithic up to recent centuries.
David leaves us with tantalising possibilities : there is documented evidence of at least one standing stone – carved subsequently with a St. Christoper figure – but mysteriously removed in the late ’70’s. There are slabbed stone stuctures which may be dolmens, though not in any ‘classic’ form – and there are the suggestive remains of groups of stones, which may simply be accidents of nature.
He acknowledges the impact that the construction of modern Andorra has had on elements of the old ways. I also suspect that the Catholic church may well have been determined to erase as much of the ‘pagan’ past as possible. I would be interested to discuss other theories as to why there are megaliths in all the surrounding areas of this region – like the harrespil (basque cromlechs) – but none in Andorra itself.

Research by archaeologists seems to show that during the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze age, dolmens and grottoes were linked in the funerary practices here in the Languedoc/Catalunya region. The grotto was a place of primary inhumation, open to the elements and to animals. When the bones had lost their flesh, they were transferred to the dolmen and sealed in. Dolmens were built a short walk from grottos and could be part of a ‘religion’ that saw both as some sort of ‘womb’ of  ‘Mother Nature’ – places to which the dead should be returned.
Frequently, springs are found in the same immediate area, thus forming a three-part system: springs and ‘holy wells’ are life-sustaining elements vital to these small communities, while the need to satisfy the requirements of the dead were provided by the grottos and the dolmens. Of course this is pure speculation – by me and a few others.
Thus, if one has located some important and significant spring or well (often ‘taken over’ by the Church) then there may be also a grotto or cave nearby – and near to that again, a dolmen.
The dolmens in our region nearly all point south-east, south, or south-west, and they are all on a high place, looking out over a valley or plain – but they are rarely on the very top of a hill.
With these three elements in mind, I will be back next spring with map and compass and hope – and I might just meet up with these keen searchers on the mountain-slopes.

Note: David’s blog does describe his visit to the cist-graves discovered in 1991 at Juberri, known as La Feixa del Moro ( The Moor’s Table).


Feixa del Moro at Juberri in Andorra. Photo David Galvez Casellas

‘Following the excavation there was an attempt – perhaps incomplete, but very laudable – at a reconstruction of the environment and that there were replanted many species of flora that had been documented as growing in the area 5,000 years ago . The sense was that of being in a beautiful place, almost untouched, with echoes of the sacred. At our first sighting of the first cista : prominent, well-kept, very well built, amazing.’ (Trans. Google and me).

He is careful to distinguish between the prehistoric, and the megalithic. It would be interesting to know the dimensions of these burial stones and their orientation.

Feixa del Moro. Une tombe néolithique en ciste dans le domaine archéologique d’Andorre.


La première sépulture néolithique découverte en Andorre, attribuable au Néolithique moyen-récent de Catalogne. Type 3 des “Sépulcros de fosa”, faciès des cistes, apparenté au Solsonien.