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.


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.


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.

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