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.

2 responses to “Mapping history, and naming two dolmens.

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. thanks a lot

  2. The first Ordnance Survey deserve great credit not only for mapping the country but also in trying to include as much lore as possible. Dr John O’Donovan, Irish scholar was recruited and part of his brief was to get an understanding of the meaning of town land names. He would seek out the oldest man often Irish speaking and try and establish the exact meanings. Larcom who I think was in charge had O’Donovan do name book books for each area he covered, unfortunately only a limited number of counties were covered.

    Some years ago a play ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel was produced the background being the first ordnance survey. I feel it did little justice to this noble enterprise which it is still a pleasure to look at the 1835 historical maps showing the country before the famine


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: