Archive for April 2010

More dolmens at Les Lacs – but it’s hard to keep track   Leave a comment

I now have photocopies of Jacques Lauriol & Jean Guilaine’s 1964/65 dig, and some time to compare their diagrams with Paul Ambert’s. It’s worth noting that in the five years combined, only three photos can be accessed – and only then with some difficulty. And that Lauriol had to rely on a M. Gibert of Lauragel for the photo of dolmen no. 2 (Lauriol’s numbering, which jumps around without reference to any north-to-south progression.)

What kind of science were they all practicing, if photography was so absent? What was their idea of a record of events, of architecture? ( To be accurate, Auriol or was it Guilaine, does actually mention the word ‘architecture’ – it’s a rare occurence. It might be why Jean Guilaine has become one of France’s foremost writers on the prehistoric world of southern Europe – he seems to have a wider perspective over the entire prehistoric period in France . He’s also written one of the very few ‘prehistoric novels’ : ‘ Pourquoi j’ai construit une maison carrée‘. EPONA, Paris (1994)

The situation up there on the Causse seems to get more confused with every team that visits. Both of these teams – the last serious excavations, now 40 years ago –  refer to all the many previous researchers in a generalised and dismissive way. And of course they never fail to take a swipe at ‘les fouilleurs clandestins’ , as if 4000 years of labour and occupation ( which is 120 generations of shepherds and farmers and hunters and plain simple poor folk ) wouldn’t have had some effect on the tombs . . .

But there seems to be little readiness to establish any sensible order in the numbering or location of the dolmens. There seems to be little serious acknowledgement of previous work – let alone a concerted effort towards building a picture of the prehistoric life that would be accessible to the general public. The overall impression I get is that of a closed group of researchers in competition with themselves. The blanket laissez-passer is ‘Le Patrimoine’ – they are doing it for the common good, for the history of us all. And beneath this shroud all manner of confusion and misinformation is allowed to proliferate.

While trying to locate the last three dolmens of Les Lacs, I came upon this structure.

In my eagerness to locate dolmen number 4, I thought it was this. But now that I’ve had time to look at my photocopies of Lauriol & Guilaine’s drawings and diagrams, I realise it’s something else entirely. In the heat of the moment I convinced myself that it shared similaties with a very ‘old’ and ‘early’ little circular dolmenitic tomb that I had visited up on Serre Pascale.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m confused. The dolmen 1 of Serre Pascale is tiny, and has ‘hallmark’ stones of varied colour. What I found was too wide to bear a capstone. So was that a neolithic ‘cabane’ that some archaeologist has cleared, or an elaborate hoax? It seems half-set in a tumulus of 8 metres, like a dolmen, but I can find no reference to it anywhere. Which means that I now have to go back up there to find Lauriol & Guilaine’s dolmen No. 4.

There are more photos of this ‘building’ on the Unknown Structure of les Lacs page.

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The dolmens of les Lacs is turning out to be a much more complicated subject than I ever imagined. A more detailed explication with diagrams, (and poorly reproduced photos of the time) of the conflicting reports is to be found on the permanent Pages, to the right, under Lacs dolmens diagrams.

The situation on the next hillside to the west – Le Bouys – with five contested dolmens, is not going to be any easier to sort out. The situation at Bois-Bas, to the west again, is likely to be hellish: it’s a necropolis of 12 to 16 tombs . . .

It’s the numbers, stupid.   1 comment

I have a problem with the archaeology of archaeology. I keep unearthing new bits of old information, and that should make finding lost dolmens easier, but it doesn’t – it just adds another layer of complexity or uncertainty. Recently I found a short report of Paul Ambert’s 1969-72 digs at Les Lacs, with a drawing of a dolmen he describes as having ‘échappé aux recherches des nombreux archéologues qui, de Renouvier à J. Lauriol se sont intéressés à la préhistoire des Causses de Minerve’. [Gallia préhistoire  1974  Volume 17  Numéro   17-2  pp. 629-664 ]. My problem was not just locating it, but identifying a dolmen not written about for 40 years: is it Dolmen des Lacs 4, or 6?

Well – I found this dolmen on my second attempt, after a lot of crashing about in the garrigue. But at first inspection, it didn’t look like the drawing – and it was the fourth dolmen as you go south. So for a while this was for me, ‘Dolmen 4 des Lacs’ – until more information was unearthed.

This is my dolmen des Lacs 4 (Ambert’s dolmen 6) – taken from the foot, or entrance.

There were enough discrepancies between his plan and my photo (and experience of visit) to make me do the whole trip again – another entire afternoon – to verify that we were talking about the same dolmen.

My two major problems centred on the two fundamentals of dolmen-construction : the orthostats and the orientation. Ambert’s drawing shows the three side stones to the left (west) and two to the right (east). His drawing shows them upright, vertical. My photo shows two stones leaning outwards and one fallen in, against the east orthostat. They are all virtually uprooted, with little to hold them at their bases.

What has happened here?

The second problem was orientation. Ambert states that this dolmen was oriented towards East North-East, at 60°. Whereas I read it as the complete opposite : 250° West South-West.

What on earth is going on here?

For more photos, and further elucidation about the Dolmen des Lacs 6 and its neighbouring tombs : go to the Dolmens des Lacs parent Page. Dolmens 4 and 5 will appear shortly.

Tomb-raiders   Leave a comment

IMPORTANT NOTE : In the light of my surprise discovery today in the library of S.E.S.A. (la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude) of a detailed and thorough report by Jean Guilaine on his research of Les dolmens des Lacs (Cahiers Ligures de Préhistoire et d’Archéologie. 1964) –  I have the choice of hurriedly re-writing half this post – or eating my words, and my hat, and a large slice of humble pie. I choose the latter. Continue reading and see how wrong I got it. Guilaine is one of our local heroes – not only friendly and helpful, but a thoroughgoingly good archaeologist. His report includes both photos and map coordinates (although they refer to a system no longer in use on any currently available map). I just wish I’d found it earlier.

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For 180 years the realm of Letters and Science in France has known about the dolmens des Lacs, when  ‘Renouvrier les mentionnait en 1831′ [ is that Charles Renouvier, the French philosopher – writing at the age of 16 ? – or his brother Jules, or his father a député of Montpellier ? It doesn’t  really matter – except these meagre references are all we have left to work with. And I do try to track them down. NB  This dating, so often reproduced in print and online is also inaccurate: it should be 1841 – making Renouvier 26 years old. ]  Since then nine other experts, either amateur or professional, have studied or excavated them: Paul Louis Cazalis de Fondouce in 1879 noted six dolmens, and in 1931 Jean Miquel de Barroubio located ten between Le Bouys and Les Lacs. Théophile and son Philippe  Héléna (conservateur de la Musée de Narbonne) placed their various finds in the museum, but failed to note what tomb they came from. Since WWII there has been le docteur Arnal (much revered, he always seems to be referred to thus) followed by Jacques Lauriol and Jean Guilaine (1964/5), with a certain M. Audibert and an equally unknown J. Hinault, until finally Lambert added his report. This was the last dig, led by Paul Ambert and took place from 1969 to 1972.

Two of the six have been ‘restored’ and marked on the map, for the benefit of the public. The other four have been allowed to disappear from sight, and practically from memory. I have been trying off and on over the last few years, to put them back on the map. But it’s only in the last few months that I have begun to ask : why have they been forgotten ? and why is it so hard to find them ?

The many hours spent online and reading through library archives has produced few results – a scattering of paragraphs in the records of the ‘Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française’ and in Gallia Préhistoire. All I could find of Ambert’s three-year-long dig was a few pages of finds, plus some drawings.

What has become of all the work that these learned men devoted to the six dolmens? I could find no photos, no maps and no coordinates. These were men of means: some were wealthy gentlemen-scientists, others were publicly-funded professional academics. They must have come equipped with cameras and possibly theodolites – and the full records must be somewhere : in private collections? in university archives? Wherever they are – it’s far from the eyes of the uneducated and untrustworthy public.

Some time back I looked up the word ‘archaeology’, and concerning the method of archaeology, Wikipedia puts the situation thus: ‘The data collected from the excavation is studied and evaluated in an attempt to achieve the original research objectives of the archaeologists. It is then considered good practice for the information to be published so that it is available to other archaeologists and historians, although this is sometimes neglected.’ (my italics).

The article continues : ‘Archaeologists are also very much reliant on public support, and the question of exactly who they are doing their work for is often discussed.’ Amongst themselves, I wonder? Or by others outside the charmed circle?

What archaeology is for, and who it is for, are weighty questions. The debate has continued for decades – though more in the English-speaking nations than the closed Francophone enclave. There seems to be a wider world of discussion and reflexion about the role of archaeology that the French ( because of a language deficit, or a cultural repression) seem unwilling to enter. My observations are based on repeated searches over a number of years: online, the material presented by French archaeologists is dull. It may be correct and scientifically accurate, worthy and serious – but it’s dull. Half of it seems aimed at school children, and the rest is academic. Personal writing, in the form of blogs or websites is extremely rare. The element of reflexivity – that readiness to examine one’s actions and motives – which the French appear eminently disposed towards in other areas of life, seems stifled here.

Discussion about our past has moved on from the science-based model that pertained in the 1960’s and ’70’s – termed processual archaeology, or ‘the New Archaeology’. It’s understandable that a young academic discipline would want to look ‘grown-up’, and want to take its place in the ranks of more senior disciplines. It’s understandable that it would look to the Sciences, and ally itself with areas that offered the weight of precise measurability (carbon-dating etc). The need to move away from the vague generalities of the pre-war ‘gentlemen-scientists’ is reasonable and desirable. That this necessitated a move into inaccessible expertise is however, deplorable.

And so this is where Post-Processual archaeology stepped in – at least in The U.K. and the U.S.A. Its critics deride it as un-scientific, but that is precisely its point. It asks archaeologists to reflect upon who they are, and what questions they ask of the past, and how they ask those questions. Everything about a dig is open to questioning – every assumption, every method, every prior stance. The point of the dig is also questioned: who is it for? who will see the results? How will the dig affect the local community? Who owns the results of the dig? Who stands to gain or lose? Whose culture is being revealed by the dig – that of the searched-for Past, or those of the lived-in Present?

The idea that experts from elsewhere could come to a place and dig it up, and go away – and not account fully for their actions, their finds and their conclusions, is utterly anathema to the post-processual archaeologist. Boxing up a few items for show in a local museum, adds insult to injury. Burying the map and hiding the locations in the vaults adds arrogance to superciliousness.

[I should note here that Jean Guilaine, as a rising star in French prehistory, went to great lengths to secure the agreement and cooperation of landowners and community leaders – with a specific commitment that all artifacts found on-site would not leave the area.]

But if you’d like to read one man’s journey from the old ways of archaeology to the new, then I can only recommend Laurent Olivier’s work called ‘Des Vestiges‘. Beware: it’s a 6.5 Mo PDF file and it’s 285 pages of French. There’s a passage (around pages 51-59) that reveal in fascinating personal detail, the differences in approach, attitude, aim, mentality and methodology between a team of French and German archaeologists working on a cross-border dig. They learn in the process how each side’s strengths and weaknesses can be harnessed together, to achieve something each team alone could not.

Olivier’s writing is part thesis, part memoir: a good example (incorporating paintings and photos and literature) of what ‘working towards the past’ might be. It’s rich, human, complex and open-ended.

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You’re tired of theory, and you’d like some photos of dolmens? I feel the same. Yesterday I found the last two elusive dolmens des Lacs, and the next post will be all photos and no talk.

Grave-robbers   Leave a comment

Two weeks have passed since the last post : now that could mean a) interest in dolmens tailing off, or b) pressure of work.

Unfortunately, it’s neither : I’ve gone and broken the unwritten Law of Blogging – I’ve been ‘working on a theory’ when I should have been writing about my searches on the hillsides. The Theory involves the old archaeology versus the New Archaeology, the French mind-set versus the Anglo-Saxon, Processual Archaeology versus Post-Processual – and the more I read and think about it all, the more difficult it gets to write anything.

Meanwhile I continue to drive across the Aude bassin, and up onto ‘les causses de Minerve’, every week, in search of the five lost dolmens of Le Bouys, and the six dolmens of Les Lacs. These two adjacent hill-plateaux – together with the sixteen (?) tombs at Bois Bas and the two at Mayranne – have been dug a half-dozen times over the last century or so by many a ‘savant’ and several experts. What they have left behind, and what they have put forward, have frustrated and infuriated me.

Armed with hightech tools and equipped with a multi-pinpointed battle-plan thanks to Google Earth and the GPS, I have crisscrossed many thorny hectares. For all the satellite-guided wizardry, it was actually through simple luck and determination that I found the dolmens. The very fact that I have NOT yet found half the tombs they mention ( tantalisingly briefly in the few documents available ) – is at the core of my Theory. It amounts to an intentional (or possibly unintentional, i.e. systemic) obfuscation or concealment of these sites, by the academics concerned.

What I have been testing – over the months of this long winter, and over the years of this blog –  is the availability to the interested public of sites of immense human importance – up to sixty dolmens on the Causses between Carcassonne and Narbonne alone. What I have been discovering is the professional/academic archaeologist’s determination that the public should not find them. The Theory, which eventually will get articulated fully on its own page, turns out to be a mirror of the very movement that archaeology has made from its early amateur days, through the closed  ‘scientific period’, to the present-day ‘open-ended’ situation. It’s a movement in thinking about the past that seems to have been conducted mainly in English, and which has not apparently involved the French that much. It’s why you can’t find a blog about archaeology in French that’s very interesting, reflexive or challenging. It’s why that list of  ‘the 50 best blogs on archaeology’ is exclusively in English.

I regret now that every unsuccessful outing, every thwarted foray, each laborious slog through garrigue was not logged and blogged. And I confess now that the Big Idea was to wow everyone (by which I mean the 40-odd people who visit this site every day, who now total 20,000.) with the full story of those five lost dolmens of Le Bouys, and the six (?) dolmens of Les Lacs.

The idea was to ‘write the book’ on the whole story – from the earliest amateur-gentlemen who saw megalithic tombs in every pile of rocks, to the present-day dolmen guide writer who cannot locate most of these. But it’s a bad day when a big idea swamps the modest aims of a blog – which should after all be simply the record of the everyday ups and downs of a dolmen-hunter.

The book will have to wait its day – it may well grow out of this blog, and from a presentation I have been invited to make to my ‘learnéd society’ : la Société d’Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude (SESA). One of its central themes will be a discussion concerning the solo amateur and the group professional – the conflict between the idea of the past as a shared, public and inclusive realm, and the practice of a closed and exclusive academic domain.

Oppidum de Minerve-la-Vieille   Leave a comment

The single defensive wall of Minerve-la-Vieille can be seen from an altitude of 10 kilometers (if you know what to look for), and is possibly the biggest visible prehistoric structure in the south of France.

At 6 km. it looks like this, a white bar in the top left corner:

At 2 km. like this:

The visible section is about 60 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 2 m. high. It is a massive and dramatic example of an ‘ éperon barré‘   – literally a barred spur, a closed-off 5 hectare tip of a high ‘peninsular’ with sheer drops of 40 metres on the east and west flanks.

The term ‘oppidum’ might seem inappropriate – it more resembles  ‘une enceinte fortifiée ‘  similar to that at Le Cros near Caunes, than the more compact Gallo-Roman structures like Pic St. Martin. There are no documents on the web to be found about it – just a couple of brief mentions:

M. J. Laurent-Mathieu  Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1935  Volume 32

un camp celtique (oppidum) appelé « Minerve-la-Vieille », est délimité sur deux faces par un angle de la falaise à pic, et protégé sur sa troisième face, par un mur colossal en pierre sèche (long. 80 m. X haut. 2 m. X larg. 2m50).


It certainly is a ‘colossal wall’ – and placed in the midst of a wilderness of scrub, it’s one of the strangest places I’ve visited.

More photos and info on the Minerve-la-Vieille Page.

What the hell are you doing here? (Part 2)   2 comments

Since Mid-Winter’s Day I’ve been up on les Causses de Minerve about ten times, and I’ve only ever met two people up there, in all those hours of walking. In February, it was my good fortune to meet a Remarkable Man, a once-in-a-lifetime event. In March it was a minor fonctionnaire from the Forestry. Neither meeting began well. I don’t need to be fluent in French – I can read faces at a hundred paces:  What the hell are you doing here?

I was looking for the oppidum at La Gasque.

It turns out that Minerve has an excess of oppida : there’s supposed to be one on the Pont Natural, and the €1 million rebuild of the the Remparts and the Visitors Centre has revealed another, on the existing site of Minerve. Another is supposedly located at Brunan, and yet another has been documented at Les Lacs ( une enceinte vérazienne et village préhistorique, searched by Paul Ambert’s archaeological team, in the ’70’s).

But the one I was looking at is well-attested (though there is no documentation online) :

[It’s pink, to the left of Minerve]

None of all this impressed André Giral, who had been watching me clambering over the pile of white rocks with camera and notebook. I realise that my appearance and behaviour can seem doubtful : old clothes, wild hair, disreputable van – but since my motives are honorable and my conscience is clear, then I am happy to confront the suspicions of others.

He was out with his dogs, looking after the young pheasants that had just been let loose on the terrain. He didn’t want anyone upsetting them. He’d never heard of this oppidum. He didn’t like the idea of me writing about the place. He didn’t want any more people coming up onto les Causses. I got the feeling he didn’t like people.

He had once been a great man for the hunt it seemed. But now?  ‘ça me dégoûte.’

Everything about the modern world upset him: he swept his arms about the seemingly wild and untrammelled landscape and declared that it was empty. He was 84 he said, and only twenty years ago the hills were full of birds and game. I said I thought they still were. He derided this: a fraction of the wildlife was left. Few birds, no rabbits, no insects. Plants and trees had disappeared. He’d walked these hills for decades, and he saw the decline.

His anger and despair at human folly and pollution occupied our entire walk back to the road. He had however accepted that my interest was genuine and was not going to bring yet more tourists, whom he clearly held in low esteem. It emerged that he too had conducted research into the prehistoric vestiges on these hills – and that I should be concentrating my efforts on le Causse Grand and Causse Mégié, where the ‘real’ oppidum, Minerve-la-Vieille, was sited.  And as we were about to part, he seemed to come to a decision – he said he might have something for me in his van. From under a pile of sacks he produced a muddied plastic ring-folder.

It was the most astonishing document that I have ever handled :  his own hand-drawn maps and scale plans of all the prehistoric sites on the Causses. It is dated 1985, the year he stopped pot-holing and dolmen-hunting. He just handed it to me, with no further demands or assurances. An hour earlier I was a foreign intruder – now I was entrusted with half a life-time’s study and experience.

There are ten A4 pages of detailed drawings : dolmens and grottes, rock-shelters and wells, prehistoric cabins and walls. Tracks, cliffs and streams. He wanted me to continue – ‘parce que vous etes jeune’ – and he was no longer able for it. His regret at the decline of the world and at his own failing powers affected me deeply. He had fortuitously crossed paths with someone who could understand and appreciate what had meant so much to him.

I am revisiting all his places and giving them GPS coordinates: they will form part of a document that will be presented to S.E.S.A. (la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude)  and its archaeological library. No further GPS coordinates will be given on this website.

The claims of the current guide-book to the dolmens of les Causses de Minerve, and the other Causses des Montagnes Noires, are negligent and inaccurate. They fail any serious attempt at documenting the extent of these half-forgotten places : it’s not enough to say that they are ‘difficilement trouvables‘.

André Giral was sixty when he made these maps, when he stopped going down pot-holes and through garrigue. Looking down at me from his height, and his age, he said: You’re still young. I wish I had your youth again.

I know now – as I have never fully known before – what I am doing here. It is as much the finding of old stones, as it is the meeting with extraordinary men.

Photos and info on La Gasque Oppidum are on the Page, right.