Archive for August 2010
It’s July Friday 28th. 1922, the second day of Germain Sicard & Philippe Hélèna’s visit to Camps-sur-l’Agly. Germain is 71 and a founder-member of France’s oldest natural history society, SESA ( and twice its president), and young Philippe will soon inaugurate Narbonne’s Musée de Préhistoire. This afternoon Marie Landriq and her husband, Octave, the village school-teachers, plan to take them to see a ‘dolmen’ that they had discovered the year before, near the village, close to the top of a massive rock outcrop called le Roc d’en Mourges. Eighty-odd years later I am following in their footsteps – but it is not made easy : there is no Roc d’en Morgues on the map. It may be le Roc d’en Benoit. In old Languedocienne, both Mourges and Benoit signify a monk. I am not convinced that it is anything more than an accidental rock-formation.
Les Landriq found calcinated bones and blackish or blackened (noiratre) pottery shards close-by. This may well have served as a funerary site in some distant past – but its very situation on a steep slope, plus the absence of real orthostats, and the lack of any dateable grave-goods – all should have insisted to Sicard, that this was not a dolmen at all.
But these were early days for archaeology – and besides, Sicard was a guest of Les Landriq – and Marie Landriq may possibly have been ‘a formidable woman’ – such that the 71 year-old doctor found difficult to contradict. On the subject of questionable rock-carvings and ‘cupules‘ Sicard apparently has his critics: Yves Le Pestipon of L’Astrée website is one –
‘Rares sont ceux qui croient en Germain Sicard. Des archéologues bien connus le traitent d’affabulateur.’ [that he makes up stories . . .]
Yves is a prolific writer and researcher of dolmens and rock-carvings : here, he is bemoaning the fact that Sicard might have misled him concerning some ‘cupules’ in a rock. He finally finds them – and finishes by celebrating Sicard’s accuracy on this occasion- ‘Germain Sicard n’est pas un affabulateur !’
In the course of my travels in the wheel-ruts of Sicard and Co. this summer, my doubts about Marie Landriq’s finds have been replaced by admiration and amazement. Her zeal and dedication resulted in a handful of significant discoveries : her own Page will appear soon.
Les Landriq have a few more neolithic discoveries to show the experts from Carcassonne, and after a day of rest, it’s just Octave and Germain who mount their bicycles and head east through Cubières and Soulatge, to reach Ruffiac. On the way they pause at Paza where the owner of the domaine tells them blithely that he recently knocked down a dolmen at Coumezeil, a farm close-by. M. Guizard nous parle encore d’un autre dolmen, que lui-même aurait détruit récemment près de la bergerie de Counezeil, au nord de Paza, un peu à l’ouest de la côte 411.
Sicard did not go to examine it. This could possibly be the dolmen referred to in Michael Hoskins’ Corpus Mensurarum, as Paza 1. Nor is the picture clarified by J-P Bocquenet, who – in his doctoral thesis of 1994 (supervised by Jean Guilaine) – writes about La nécropole de Paza :
Trois dolmens et un petit site d’habitat constituent cette nécropole. Certains auteurs citent un cromlech qui serait en fait un dolmen ruiné ou un menhir. Les structures mégalithiques se trouvent sur la pente sud de la colline qui domine la bergerie de Paza.
This is confusing on a number of accounts: there is indeed a menhir in the vicinity – and it is most definitely not a ruined dolmen but stands within a distinct cromlech of stones : I visited it during this trip. It has recently been waymarked – by a local man, Jean-Jacques Pannolié, who is acknowledged as an expert in these matters – as a cromlech, and I have unearthed Mme. Landriq’s notification of it to the Société Préhistorique Francaise, in June 1924. My photos of it appear on the Coumezeil menhir and cromlech Page, to the right.
So it would appear that Boquenet was blindly citing other authors and did not visit any of these sites. There is no necropolis at or near Paza, or Coumezeil, for that matter. A necropolis must consist of more than two tombs – let’s say ‘within a stone’s-throw’ of eachother. The menhir and cromlech are about 800 metres from Paza, and 500 from Coumezeil. No one has yet provided any precise locations for Paza 1 dolmen, or II, or III. There is another menhir at Trébals, but that is 2.5 km. from Paza. And there is another dolmen, at La Roudouniero (found by Marie Landriq a year later : Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1923). It stands 900 m. south of Paza – yet has been called Paza III.
Let us leave the confusion at Paza behind – as did our pair of dolmen-hunters. They have another 8 kilometers on their ‘machines’ ‘ under the fierce rays of the sun, along stoney roads – before they reach la métairie de Triolles – or Trillol as my map has it. They leave their ‘bécanes’ there and set off on foot for the last climb, with their knapsacks of ‘vittals’. The 71-year-old Germain must by now have been feeling his age, for he settles down in some shade while Octave disappears into the undergrowth.
Sooner, probably, than he wanted he gets a call – and it’s off again up the slope. A short scramble later Sicard finds himself ‘en face d’un beau dolmen, bien entier, qui se dresse majestueusement . . .’
And it is a surprise, and a remarkable sight, after all the sad little ruined and degraded tombs scattered over the hills of les Corbières and le Minervois. It’s a complete and rather impressive ‘dolmen simple’.
It is worthy of inclusion in any guide-book, but it does not appear in any report or guidebook, or on any map. How regional historians have missed this – is yet again beyond my comprehension. A local team have done good work in clearing and waymarking the track – but have not yet alerted the wider public to this impressive megalith.
Sicard quickly realises that it has been ransacked – and has a culprit ready to hand : ‘l’agent-voyer, qui surveillait l’exécution de la route de Montgaillard, M. Isidore Gabelle, collectionneur érudit et acharné’.
It was, he suspects (and with absolutely no proof) the Superintendant of Roads, who is a learnéd and voracious collector. But they get over this bitter moment and decide that, given the beating sun, they should enjoy the shade offered by the dolmen – and have their picnic there, under its table.
I too settled in, set out my solitary snack, and thought of them. Trois hommes dans un dolmen (sans parler du chien).
It was a fine end to Sicard’s second visit – but there was a long bicycle ride ahead. For Octave it was the 20 km. ride home to Camps – but for Sicard it was 30 kms. down through Les Gorges de Galamus to the station at St. Paul-de-Fenouillet, and the long journey back to Carcassonne.
Germain Sicard – doctor, wine estate owner, speleologue and archaeologist – has been an amiable companion throughout this summer. His first journey into ‘Les Corbières Sauvages’ was blighted by an easter blizzard, with no dolmens explored and little to report.
A second invitation was offered by ‘notre dévouée collègue Madame Landriq’, who had meanwhile discovered some ‘nouvelles instances’ – more dolmens for the 71 year-old enthusiast to explore. So on July 27th. 1922, he secured his bicycle in the guard’s van at Carcassonne station – ‘d’aller de nouveau dans cette si intéressante, si sauvage et si peu explorée région des Corbiéres.’
At 9.20 two trains pulled in to the station at St. Paul de Fenouillet – his and the train from Rivesaltes bringing the 22 year-old Philippe Héléna – ‘tous grands amateurs de préhistoire’. Then it was off on their ‘bécanes’ up the 12 kms. through the Gorges de Galamus to Cubières-sur-Cinoble, where they met M. and Mme. Landriq, and enjoyed ‘un excellent repas champêtre’.
The four then set off on their ‘machines’ up the road to Soulatge. The dolmen de l’Arco dal Pech is now marked on the IGN Serie Bleu map and is part of a walking trail – back then it was a steep trackless scramble up through trees and box-brush to the summit. Did Mme Landriq wear long skirts – or was she modern enough to sport cycling knickerbockers (‘rationals’)?
[ She will get a Page to herself, in due course – Les Dolmens Imaginaires de Mme. Landriq.]
It’s a stiff thirty minute walk up to the one, two or three dolmens above Cubiéres, and Sicard was not disappointed with the massive, but rather dislocated megalithic tomb at the top.
He and I were less impressed with the other two ‘dolmens’ thirty metres down the slope.
It looks to me more like a diaclase – a wide fissure in the bedrock. I have seen and read about diaclases used as tombs – particularly up at the nécropole de Bois Bas. They may have been used as sepulchres in times of population-stress, when the tribe’s numbers were being severely reduced through epidemics (living close to animals was convenient – but deadly to a group that had not developed any immunities.)
Les Landriq had, so they said, found a quantity of grave-goods at or ‘near’ all three ‘dolmens’. Germain Sicard was not about to pour cold water on their enthusiasm that day. His account, if read carefully, does allow room for conjecture.
The team that are responsible for the waymarked track to the l’Arco dal Pech dolmen at Cubiéres, must also have read Sicard’s ‘Deuxième Excursion’ and have cleared around the two other graves. But essentially it is ‘Le beau dolmen bien conservé’ that Sicard came to see, that merits its own Page – where more information and photos will be posted.
Meanwhile the four of them carried on to Camps, where they spent the night at the Schoolhouse. This visit we set up our tent at La Ferme at Camps, where we met an international crew – some of whom have been loyal to the place for 27 years.
This was just the start of a busy weekend of megalith-hunting for Germain and me. I consider myself fairly fit – but I was having trouble keeping up with his itinerary. The following morning Sicard set of at first light to reach a barely known ridge that he called ‘le plateau de Moufri’ (this might be one of his typos, and thus should be Monfri, which might relate to the ridge called Frigoula) high above les Gorges de Galamus. This promontary is largely unknown : it is variously called ‘Frigoula’ and ‘Les Remparts des Sarrazins’. This was Mme Landriq’s next surprise.She thought it might be a Bronze-age defensive settlement, and subsequent researchers have confirmed her findings.
I had set myself the task of following Germain and Philippe, step by step out of the village, as the sun rose. The landscape no longer looks like this, with cleared fields and man and animal persuing hard but productive work.
The story of Camps, and how it was almost abandoned, and how it was bought by one man, and how it was allowed to return to wilderness? Well – that’s all for another story in another blog.
The walk to the ‘enceinte fortifiée’ of les Remparts des Sarrazins is detailed on its own Page, to the right.
The glorious late July weather allowed me to enjoy a ‘déjeuner sur l’herbe’ as did Germain and Philippe and Les Landriq, not to mention the miller from le moulin de l’Agly who led them high up onto the giddying peaks above Les Gorges.
It’s impossible to show how many hundreds of metres above the Gorges this is. The video replays some of the alarm I felt. This is an extreme defensive position, replicated throughout the region, where Bronze Age tribes felt threatend by invasive forces – and it was probably not long held or needed. It feels very much like the hillfort above our village of Moux – random vestiges of a temporary position constructed rapidly in time of extreme fear and uncertainty.
Again : more info and photos on les Remparts des Sarrazins Page.
As I settled to my lunch, having descended from one of the more extreme places of the Bronze-Age peoples – I realised that Sicard was above all else, a writer. He collected people and experiences and he shared them. Another Natural Scientist might have fussed about the stones under his feet – but Germain, at ease upon his back having descended from this alarming place of safety, could recall these thoughts :
Mais il faut quitter ce merveilleux spectacle, et redescendre les sentiers que nous avons trouvés si ardus à la montée. Nous déjeunons dans la vallée de Riol, près de la source, et pendant que nous reposons mollement sur la pelouse, deux aéroplanes passent bruyamment sur nos têtes, faisant vibrer l’air de leurs ronflements sonores, et filant dans l’azur comme des vautours.Ainsi après avoir visité sur le plateau de Moufri les débuts de la civilisation, nous envoyons franchissant l’espace la merveilleuse évolution.
One small aeroplane passed overhead as I descended. I had fervently hoped that some jet or other piece of machinery would so time its arrival to allow me to mirror and echo and double Sicard’s experience. It did – and I recognised it as a tourist plane taking photos of what is now the bigger show in town : the ‘Cathar Castles’ – for which this region (for better or for worse) is now so well-known.
[NB This post is being copied in its entirety over on to the Page section: Sicard’s 2nd. Excursion.]
There is a Page on the Cubières dolmen or l’Arco dal Pech – to the right.
In 1922, Monsieur Germain Sicard made three Excursions into Les Hautes Corbières, at the invitation of Madame Landriq, schoolmistress at Camps-sur-l’Agly, who had found a number of dolmens in the region. She and her husband were regular correspondents to La Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, S.E.S.A. at Carcassonne, and had begun a collection of prehistoric artifacts.
The journey down – by train and tramway, omnibus and jalopy, bicycle and foot – was arduous and exhausting. Les Tramways à Vapeur de l’Aude, running on thin rails and an uneven roadbed, were noisy and noisome. The roads, largely unmetalled, were either stoney or muddy. Lodgings were infrequent, sanitation rudimentary, electricity unheard-of.
Germain Sicard – in company with, variously: Antoine Fages, Philippe Héléna and les Landriq – came three times to this ‘si intéressante, si sauvage et si peu explorée région des Corbiéres.’
Sicard was a founder-member of SESA in 1889 and by 1923 had been twice elected President. He was 71 when he wheeled his ‘bécane’ into the end wagon at Carcassonne train station and headed south in search of dolmens.
This summer I wedged my bike into the back of the car – amongst Mary’s plein air impedimenta: easel and stool, boards and paints and rags and brushes – and set off to follow in his tracks. These prehistoric burial sites have never been marked on any map: they were in danger then of being lost – and are now again in danger of being forgotten. Two years back I set myself the task of not letting this happen: I didn’t realise it would open up a world of friendships and fantastic places.
[Sicard’s accounts of his three Excursions dans les Hautes Corbières, with my contemporary findings, can be found under ‘Sicard’s Excursions’ in the Pages side-bar – where there is much concerning trams and travel, food and friendship, and naturally all kinds of old stones.
The dolmens and menhirs he and I explored – they all come under their own names with their own pages:
Cubières dolmen, Trébals menhir, Trillols dolmen, Paza menhir and circle, La Roudounièro dolmen (or Paza III), Les Remparts des Sarrazis hillfort.]