Archive for June 2010

Could just one stone be a dolmen?   2 comments

Diane Olivier, a Californian Plein Air artist with many years experience drawing the rugged landscapes of America and France, expressed genuine puzzlement recently here : how can I tell if a pile of stones really is a dolmen. And just this week a dinnerparty guest could barely conceal her disbelief that I had turned up yet another ‘long-lost dolmen’. It could be just a pile of stones.

These are legitimate concerns : the dolmens of our region are frequently among the smallest in France, and seem to bear little relation to the massive structures in Brittany and elsewhere across Europe – and they are often severely degraded through weathering and ransacking.

Now – there is a local amateur historian who is very keen to establish a second dolmen on the hill above his village of Félines-Corbières – and even includes it on his local walking-guide. Last summer I swallowed the lure and went looking – but saw only a heap of stones. It lacked all three of the basic requirements : 1 – at least two stones embedded and upright in a recognisable configuration. 2 – a clearly discernable orientation somewhere between south-east and south-west. And 3 – preferably some previous mention : it is highly unlikely that a ‘new’ dolmen is going to turn up, without having been noticed by previous generations of shepherds, chasseurs, or gentlemen-scientists.

There are other indicators that may not always be present : a tumulus (usually about 10 metres across in our region) is a sure sign that this was a communal tomb constructed by the clan. The location can rule a heap of stones out, too : dolmens are rarely sited in a valley or ground-depression – they usually command a view to the south, and are frequently midway up a slope. The location of his dolmen – three metres from the edge of a cliff – should have alerted him : there is no room for any entrance-way, or tumulus – let alone any space for the ritual that surely accompanies the ceremony of interring the dead. In this instance, it was one eroded vestige of a small upright slab, surrounded by a random pile of irregular stones : with no tomb-area, or cella, within (usually 1 metre wide and at least 3 metres long).

The three Dolmens de la Forêt – a case in point.

I came across a brief mention of these in a 1979 publication : L’Aude Préhistorique – Inventaire des Gisements Préhistoriques, Carcassonne. Michel Barbaza. (Atacina No. 9) They were said to be ‘near the farm called la Forêt’, up above La Causse de Siran. One was given a precise location just 20 metres from the roadside. I had no expectation of finding it though, as one look at the area was enough : it had been bulldozed under. The screen-capture below shows the terrain, with the characteristic contour-lines of the Forestry Commission plantation.

I printed this out and had a quick look for it anyway, a few weeks ago as I was passing through : sure enough, all around waypoint LF1 (bottom left) there was nothing but slabs of limestone – rows upon rows of possible orthostats and capstones, but nothing I could claim was in any kind of alignment, or showing any orientation.

The video below was taken last saturday, a little further up the hill. It shows the type of ground I usually encounter, and the typical experiences I undergo as ‘possibles’ turn into ‘impossibles’ :-

As can be seen on my screen-map, above, there are many more places to search – but I left them for another visit, and turned my attention to the one dolmen of the three that was briefly singled out in Barbaza’s Inventaire. It was said to be near the cliffs that give on to La Gorge de la Cesse, at a place called ‘Pas-Grand’. Unfortunately no such place is marked on the IGN Carte. But in toponymy, a ‘pas’ signifies either a pass (through mountains, or across a ravine, or across water as in Pas-de-Calais), or possibly a foot-print (as in a headland). There are a number of such promontories around la ferme de la Forêt – so I picked the nearest and put in some waymarks for the GPS – LF6 and 7.

But my recent expedition with daughter Jessica to find the Fournes dolmens, had made me concious that some tumuli have become overgrown and no longer show up as white. So while continuing to enter ‘possibles’ as waypoints, I began to study closely every single element in the satellite picture. And that’s how I found the dolmen – from 888 metres up, and without leaving home.

Now it’s your turn to play Spot The Dolmen! [Hint – it’s not any of those white blobs.]

Of course, I entered my guess into the GPS – and last saturday I walked straight to it. But what I found was quite a shock – it looked like I had found a one-stone dolmen.

Can a single stone – with no tumulus and very little ‘documentation’ – be considered an authentic dolmen? You can judge for yourselves on the La Forêt Dolmen Page, to the right.

So, of the three dolmens, there’s the one I found, the one ploughed under – and the third remains ‘at large’.

GPS – or, God Practising Syzygy   8 comments

If God had not decided to spend this Saturday morning on perfecting His juggling skills, with my four geostationary satellites – I would never have found the long-lost last two dolmens of Mousse.

The three dolmens of Mousse have been causing grief to just about everyone who ever went looking for them, since the late 1800’s. Jean Miquel de Barroubio mentions a long ‘allée couverte’ among the many dolmens of St.-Julien des Meulieres, in 1896. But this group of three dolmens seems to have evaded the searches of Cazalis de Fondouce and Laurent-Mathieu, in the 1920’s – and even le Docteur Arnal in his forays up and down les Causses de Siran in 1946.

More recently they eluded ‘The Captain’ (early founder-member of The Megalithic Portal, and an experienced and indefatigable dolmen-researcher and tracker) who tramped in high summer the blinding rivers of limestone karst – called la Combe des Morts – in vain. Bruno Marc, our ‘regional expert’ on ‘all things megalithic’ does not seem to bother with these sad, lost, broken down old tombs. And who can blame him when the real archaeologists of the region show no interest in what is on their doorsteps?

Why nothing has been written about all these lost dolmens – since Jean Guilaine and Paul Ambert studied the prehistoric vestiges of the Minervois and the Corbières in depth in the late ’60’s & early ’70’s, puzzles me. Why has no young student of archaeology wanted to revisit these sites? Why has no established archaeologist published a review or an update on their status? Why has no local historian bothered to see what architectural riches still remain on local ground?

Perhaps the young archaeology students all think – It’s all been done, the tombs are stripped bare, there’s nothing left to find. And the established archaeologists all have their own niches. And the local historians are ‘à la retraite‘ and not up to beating through the bushes anymore.

Or has our general sense of Time shrunk? In an era of plenty and comfort, perhaps the last thing we want to contemplate are the evidences of former civilisations that have crumbled, and been forgotten. Ruins and our intermittent fascination with them, will be treated in a subsequent post.

But today I ‘re-found’ the last two dolmens of Mousse – with a little help from the last archaeologist who conducted a dig there in the early ’70’s – Paul Ambert. I know full well that these dolmens were never truly ‘lost’ – and that ‘les chasseurs’ could lead me to them (and probably led Ambert to them too). He still ritually castigates them, and the shepherds  ‘à qui on doit autant de pillages de dolmens’. I’m never quite sure if he is talking about local thieves currently circling like the goshawks overhead today – or those of the intervening 40 centuries that have spoilt his game. It’s a ritual complaint, and it might serve to cover a multitude of sins – some committed in the name of archaeology.

God, Juggling and Satellites

I had planned this trip with military precision:

I attacked from below, working up both sides of La Combe des Morts, eliminating likely ‘tumuli’ as I went. I would make side forays to check out other ‘hopeful’ blobs of white – and always be able to trackback if I felt I was getting lost. Believe me,  panic can set in up on these wildernesses of garrigue as the sun sets and vision gets dazzled and direction is wavering . . . In an area of 1 km by 500 m. it is possible to become frighteningly lost – without GPS.

But God decided that He did not want me to get to waypoint 6 : waypoint 6 remained fixedly at 18.1 metres distance. I shut down and started up. I changed the batteries. No – I was forever doomed to be 18.1 metres from WP6, however far I wandered. So I gave up on 6 and set the machine for 7. And you already know what I found : I was wildly adrift from Point 6 and nowhere near Point 7 – when I stumbled up to the sad remains of Mousse dolmen No. 3 :

The military precision of my planning had served for naught – this dolmen has a rudimentary tumulus alright, but it’s not visible to the Google Eye. I’d never have found it, had God not dropped a ball just at that moment.

[NB Lest you start worrying: I do not believe in divine intervention. I do however think that sometimes you can make some of your own luck. I call one, chance – the other : my good fortune].

More on all three Mousse dolmens, on the Mousse Dolmens Page – right. Just as soon as I can paste up a few words & images.

a dolmen, a daughter and a doubt   1 comment

My birthday passed in a small cascade of surprises – and among them was my daughter, over from Cork, keen to go on another dolmen-hunt. This time, I assured her, things would be much more organised. I had found a short account of Paul Ambert’s digs around the hamlet of Fournes, on the ‘causses’ above Siran in the Minervois Hills. I showed her how high-tech I had got since our last shambolic wanderings : how my GPS and GoogleEarth worked so well together with waypoints entered and screen-captured printouts of likely tumuli . . . I promised there would be no crashing through the garrigue, and that we’d hit two dolmens that have not been recorded for forty years, no problem. You know where this is heading.

First hitch in Dad’s glitch-free foray: new vineyards have appeared since the GoogleSat last passed over – and someone had planted a new standing-stone:

Naturally I got inordinately excited, before she pointed out that it looked . . . too new to be prehistoric.

I reluctantly conceded that yes there was no lichen. So we headed off, stage left, in search of Ambert’s ‘dolmen de Fournes No. 1’.

An hour or so later we gave up, and were about to embark on the 100% copper-bottomed certainty of strolling up to Dolmen No. 2 – when A Man in a Tractor appeared. He saved the afternoon and he saved my skin and he led us by the hand with great humour to The Dolmen. This was the only dolmen he knew, and had known since he was small. He remembered crawling into it, and hunters scanning for game on top of its capstone. And he remembered how annoyed everyone was when the archaeologists came and stripped the tomb open. And how they demanded that some repairs were made. And how the archaeologists slapped down a bed of concrete, by way of conciliation. “Une couche pas trop archéologique!”

This, incidentally was not some local ‘abruti’, or thicko: he was a ‘Prof. de Sciences’ who had taught all over France, and had retired recently to grow vines in his native earth. He was the most amiable of men – open and good-humoured – and we completely forgot to ask if he was responsible for setting up that third megalithic monument.

So here is, at least, one of the two genuinely prehistoric stone structures at Fournes:

As a graduate of French (&Politics) she puzzled over the none-too-clear description of the two digs, and the sketch-map that Ambert added. And only thanks to our unknown guide do we now realise that both map and description are faulty.

So for a more detailed account of our visit, go to the Fournes Dolmen 2 page, to the right. Dolmen number one awaits another trip.