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.]