This winter when the weather permits, I head across the plain to the Montagnes Noires and up onto Les Causses de Minerve. Since January I’ve been up there six times and it’s beginning to feel like commuting to work. I’m looking for the dozen or so ‘lost dolmens’ that others have visited and researched since the late 19th. century – but which have gone unreported for over forty years now. And one by one I am retrieving them from oblivion.
The flocks of sheep and herds of goats that once kept the garrigue at bay have been gone for a half-century and the ‘chaos of stone’ that Germaine Sicard described in the 1920’s has reverted to a jungle of box and ilex, juniper and dwarf oak. But I refuse to believe that the dolmens and their tumuli have dissolved into karst, or been obliterated by scrub : they must still be there in some form. With our modern tools – satellite and internet – and with effort and luck, they can be found again.
Some of them of course are not lost at all : chasseurs know some of them as landmarks and even shelters; potholers and botanists may be aware of some but pass them by with a shrug – someone else’s obsession. It’s rare that people venture off-track – impenetrable garrigue and fear of wild boars keep most to the marked paths. And anyway their interests lie elsewhere and they leave no written record of the locations of these old tombs.
I steer clear of hunters, and boars steer clear of me – and I never see another soul out there in the wild. And I don’t think archaeologists bother with these places anymore – archaeology has moved indoors : it’s colloques and symposia, meetings and papers and jostling for position in the shrinking academic landscape. The money for archaeology has suffered numerous cuts (why dwell on the past?), and archaeologists are often no more than agents of a wasteful State, dependent on the next ‘developement’ – motorway or lotissement or grand surface. Dolmens are probably not interesting at the present time, to students or their profs – ‘it’s all been done to death’.There’s very little online, and you’d be tempted to think that discussing archaeology was, outside of permitted/academic constraints, a crime. [Part 2 addresses these and other French anomalies]
And older prehistorians are not fit enough to manage the rough terrain. They content themselves with publishing guidebooks that leave out half the story.
So what am I doing here? Why put myself through this?
Not a pretty sight – and another reason why my Mary doesn’t always want to come walking with me. I now wear an old waxed jacket and thick jeans and gauntlets – items essential on les Causses, but too hot in the sun.
So why do it?
There’s no answer : it’s an obsession. I would seem to be one of the few people with enough time (for the online research, the library reading, and the hillwalking) and enough stamina for the hunt. This makes me unusual, but not peculiar : an interest in the built landscape, in humanity’s respect for the dead, in ruins and what ruins tell us about the fragility of our hope for the future – these concerns are shared by many, in all countries, in every age.
I found these two quotes on Punk Archaeology. Pogue Harrison on the sight of ruins:
“One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases an unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against -natural or geological time- ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them.” Robert Pogue Harrison, The dominion of the dead 2003: p. 3
And this from Stephennie Mulder, Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas (she’s writing to Kostis, an old university colleague on his Facebook page) :
Ruins have the ability to conjure a certain type of melancholy that is like nothing else in human experience, I think. Did you know mourning over ruins is a major theme in Arabic poetry? One of my favorites:
At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.
Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?
Punk Archaeology a collaborative project between Kostis Kourelis, Architectural historian and archaeologist, Assistant Professor in Art History at Franklin and Marshall College, William Caraher and others.
Languedoc has been a crossroads of people and cultures and trade since prehistoric times – and our corner of South West France where the river Aude meets the Mediterranean, reveals these traces most particularly. It’s an unassuming but benign river : bringing snowmelt from the Pyrenees, slowing in the fertile plain, before opening into accessible lagoons at its mouth near Narbonne.
From the south, over the Pyrenees, came the sunrise dolmen-builders, and from the sea in the east came the sunset builders. They came and stayed because the climate was good – and because there were metals in the hills, and a clear route through the Carcassonne Gap and down the Garonne to the Atlantic.
Metals and goods came down from Ireland and Cornwall, and were traded and exchanged for ceramics and jade and jet from Italy and Greece, and up from the Iberian peninsular. Poppy and sativa seed users met the beer-drinking Bell-beaker people – traces remain in the now-silted protohistoric lagoon ports.
For them here, the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic period was a golden age, with enough land and forest to go round, sufficient water and wildlife for the population, and an energizing interchange of ideas and goods. Families and clans lived in peaceful harmony with modest communal burial tombs spaced evenly through the hills of the Minervois and the Corbieres. There was no warrior-caste : there was no war.
It’s with deep pleasure then, that I roam around these hills looking for the half-forgotten burial places of these happy few.
Of course they did not know that they were happy. They didn’t know that the mines they dug would produce manganese-dust, leaving precious children and valued elders half-paralysed. And that the need for wood to fuel the forges would denude the hills of trees. Or that their ever-increasing flocks of sheep would strip the slopes of soil. Or that empires to the east would fall, and trade collapse, and that a dark age would engulf them. Or that new people would come, the Volcae Tectosages or Celts as we generally know them, with the new metal and the iron-working skills that produced lethal and durable weaponry. Then everything could start up all over again, but different.
I record and write about those Iron Age hillforts and oppida because my megalithic searches bring me into close contact with them – and because they too are fast being forgotten. But I do it with unease and a sense of foreboding – though their locations are often dramatic and the construction impressive. For by this time money has arrived, and these places represent concentrations of wealth and power and fear.
So I return with relief to the solitary dolmens, knowing they signify valleys of people unencumbered yet with the burden of overpopulation and the weight of complexity.
[The two photos are from recent finds on separate Causses above Minerve. I believe they are dolmens that have not been visited and recorded by historians or archaeologists for many decades – though local hunters and shepherds know them well. The problems concerning the accurate naming and locating of these ‘lost’ dolmens continues to this day, with unverified claims and inaccurate placings only clouding the subject. Full posts on both these ‘new’ dolmens, and a summary of their history to follow.]
Almost unmarked – but still quite remarkable. It should have a name: so I shall call it the Affiac Oppidum.
The hill upon which sit the vestiges of the oppidum lies just to the east of Trausse-Minervois, and dominates the Aude river plain. An old secondary Roman road from Carcassonne to Béziers passes close to its foot. A sizeable clay-works dating back to pre-Roman times lies on this once-important thoroughfare.
The locating of this impressive structure involved the three tools I have at my disposal : time, luck and perseverance.
This is presumably the entrance, opening south.
More photos & info on the Affiac oppidum page, right.
Not exactly a discovery, as this is sitting in the middle of a stoney track, due south of Le Bouys, and seems to have been cleared quite recently.
Credit for locating this large and well-preserved tomb must go to Jon Knowles, a frequent visitor to the region and an occasional dolmen-hunter, who posted a photo and an account of its approximate location. It is apparently known to local people – but there the trail ends.
Once again I can find no information in any book, or map, or website. It is not referenced anywhere as having been searched by archaeologists, nor is it mentioned by Bruno Marc on his otherwise comprehensive site , nor on the Mégalithes du Monde site , nor Francis Cahuzac’s site Inventaire des mégalithes, polissoirs et hypogées en France.
These are extraordinary omissions when you consider its size and condition :
This dolmen needs to have a name : on the plan cadastrale it is sited on land called Causse Mégié, a word that would appear from etymological searches to be linked to métairie or a share-crop farm. There are other dolmens on the next ‘causse’ to the west, on Grand Causse Mégié, and on Causse Petit.These would be real discoveries . . .
More photos and info on the Causse Mégié dolmen Page, right.