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’.