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.