Archive for October 2010

le Clot de l’Oste dolmen – found in a thicket of words   Leave a comment

Inaccuracy and confusion have surrounded this megalithic site from the beginning.
In 1897 the schoolmaster at Bouisse, Jean-Baptiste Bonis, discovered the dolmen while out searching for prehistoric implements. The tomb had already been ransacked and his search turned up only a few items: a bronze ring, a large jaw-bone and some bone fragments. The jaw however held ‘fort belles dents bien conservées’. Le Dr Bascou de Bouisse  thought the jawbone belonged to a giant – “un colosse” – and arranged for it to be buried in the cemetery.
Germain Sicard (one of the leading amateur prehistorians of the region) then heard about it from another member of la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, l’Abbé Ancé. And it was here – between the two men – that the confusion begins. First: that Abbé Ancé called it  by its ‘country name’ – ‘peiro dreito‘, and second: that he spelt it with an H. Sicard included it in his report L’Aude Préhistorique (Bulletin de la Soc. d’Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, t. XI, 1900) and again in the more comprehensive Essai sur les Monuments mégalithiques du département de l’Aude (Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1929 ) where it appears thus:

Now – there’s a lot going wrong in these three sentences. Leaving aside the initial gross error of inserting ‘menhir’ instead of ‘colline’ – we come to the first major inaccuracy: there is no place named ‘Peiro Dreito’ on any map of  the commune. Secondly, he doesn’t allow that the term ‘peiro dreito’ can, in local parlance, be used for both dolmens and menhirs.

A ce propos notons que dans le Lot le toponyme Pierre Levée désigne les dolmens et non les menhirs. On peut également trouver les variations Peyro Lebado, Peyrelevade, Peyrelongue, ou même Peyrefi. Il est intéressant de remarquer que dans l’Aude aussi, l’allée couverte du Clot de l’Oste (commune de Bouïsse) était appelée Péïro Dreïto. (J Clottes. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1963)

Sicard’s second sentence is short and simple enough, if imprecise. The third leaps off into a wild, five-line speculation : asking us if the name itself doesn’t recall echoes of a battle, based on a latin interpretation, then speculating that the defeated were buried there – or – recollecting that he is supposed to be talking about a menhir (and not a burial-place) – that the site was where human sacrifices might have been performed, at the foot of this ‘idol’.

His latin is also inaccurate: there is no such word as ‘hostios’. There is however ‘hostias’ which is the plural accusative of the first declension feminine noun hostia/ae which does mean ‘sacrificial victim’. This extraordinary flight-of-fancy flutters feebly back to earth with the closing words :  “if we can, in fact, attribute this role to menhirs”.

What strikes me about this remarkable (and still influential) little entry is that he arbitrarily turns ‘oste’ into ‘hoste’, when the Occitan language has no letter H:

La Dictionnaire Languedocien-François (Pierre-Augustin Boissier, Abbé de Sauvages 1753)

and that he doesn’t attempt a translation of the word ‘clot’. He has some Latin, and that gives him Hostis = enemy. However, he ignores the word’s initial and primary meaning – ‘stranger’. With this sense we are getting closer to understanding the naming of this dolmen.

[History of Words. Merriam-Webster Inc.]

His final and fatal error was to presume that the word ‘clot’ meant an enclosed field. He assumed, as many other writers do, that it comes from the word ‘clos’: ‘Claus, Claux, Clausas, Clausis, Clauzis viennent de l’occitan et désigne un lieu clos, fermé, du latin CLAUSUM. À ne surtout pas confondre avec Clot, avec un “t” dont l’étymologie est différente.’

For this researcher it comes from a similar but different root : ‘Clot provient d’un terme pré-latin KLOTT, d’origine indéterminée, désignant un replat (sur un versant), un terrain plat,  voire en léger creux. C’est un mot occitan encore usité pour plat.’

That writer does not provide any sources for his interpretation, whereas I would cite again  La Dictionnaire Languedocien-François. It was the life-work of Pierre-Augustin Boissier, Abbé de Sauvages, begun in 1745 and first published in 1753 in one volume, then in 1785 in two volumes, and expanded in 1820 by his grand-nephew Baron d’Hombres-Firmas. Larousse described the dictionary thus : ‘Cet ouvrage témoigne de longues et laborieuses recherches. L’abbé de Sauvages n’a réellement rien négligé pour étudier à fond le patois de son pays ; il poussait la précaution jusqu’à toujours choisir ses servantes dans les villages des Cévennes où la tradition des vieux langages s’était le mieux conservé.’

For ‘clot’ it provides a choice : a ditch, a tomb, a cavity, a hollow.

and an earlier work confirms this:

Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue françoise, Volume 1 [Gilles Ménage 1650]

So there was Sicard, taking flight into a world of prehistoric warfare and sacrificial totem-poles, and leading everyone else astray for decades – while all along the place was simply called the Tomb of the Stranger.

The inaccuracy over the spelling and the confusion between dolmen and menhir continue to this day. The Wikipédia entry for the commune of Bouisse repeats the misspelling – it probably trusted  Bruno Marc’s website. But Marc is just copying Sicard 90 years later (neither of them having visited the place) – and that’s how ignorance continues down through the years – until someone stops it.

Now, half-way through this Comedy of Errors enters Bernard Dandine, the first to shed some scientific light on the place (while still getting the spelling wrong). He sent  ‘Une note sur le Dolmen du Clot de l’Hoste‘ to the Société préhistorique française (Bulletin  1954  Volume  51)  in which he describes being taken to the site by the ‘first’ man to find it – the now 80-year-old Jean-Baptiste Bonis. And thus he was able to confirm that it was indeed a dolmen.

There’s much more yet on this: more toponymy, etymology – even some dentistry – as well as photos and info, on the Clot de l’Oste dolmen Page, left.

Call in the archaeologists   Leave a comment

The good thing about being Proprietor, Publisher, and Principal Reporter on this site, is that when you rush in from an afternoon fighting the undergrowth and shout – Hold the front page! . . . there’s no argument. Everything stops. Those hot pixels about your third excursion to the southern Corbières? Spiked – for the moment.
But I can’t start shouting – ‘Read All About It ! Dolmen Found at Montbrun!’ – not yet. Not until I have informed the C.N.R.S. and written to S.E.S.A. and had my fingerprints taken and sworn on the Bible/sung the Marseillaise. It could, after all, just be a pile of old stones.

There is not much to be seen in the photo above – even after an hour of ‘gardening’. So what is there to go on? No discernable orthostats – nothing upright at all. No headstone and no capstone.

The impetus to go looking for this megalithic site was prompted by the findings in the previous Post: that many (not all) stone structures are located near old-established boundaries. And further: that neolithic clan territories may have formed the shape of modern France. From memory, and with a bit of research, I was able to show a score of dolmens and menhirs that followed this pattern. One of them was in fact close-by our nearest village, Montbrun-des-Corbières.

We’ve walked this ridge many times and I’ve looked here and on the neighbouring hillside above Lézignan for another ‘Pierre Droite’. Not having found that one – I assumed that the good people of the region had smashed them both.

[Note: our market-town was once known as Lézignan-les-Réligieuses ( Guerres de Religions). Earlier it was suspected of being another Cathar hot-bed. I, for one, am heartily sick of  ‘the Caffars’. Any mention of them brings out my ‘inner de Monfort’. Mawkish tourists gawking at a minor religious train-crash makes me want to mount another crusade . . .]

So with religious fever running high for centuries throughout the region, it would be ‘a miracle’ if any pagan monument remained standing. Wherever I see a ‘Pierre Plantée’ or ‘Peyro Dreto’ on the map I will dutifully waste an afternoon in order to be able to state with reasonable authority – that there’s nothing left to be seen.

But I had not actually searched this part of the ridge. If I accuse other megalithic guide-book writers of laxity I had better be careful – and pull myself away from the computer, head out into the gale and come back with nothing as usual but the scratches.

Except this time I would do it properly – with Google Earth GPS waymarks an’ all. I would cover the whole area: every clump of trees, every thicket of thorns. And this is what I found:

These are the two major stones of the group – neither are even one meter long or wide. So why even start clearing the undergrowth? Because two of the three criteria had been met: first –  these stones have ‘form’, that is: a history and a placement and a local occitan name. Second – they have an orientation: precisely East-West. This site has other attributes which are indicative if not definitive: it is three metres long (about average for a ‘dolmen simple‘. And it is one meter wide. There are no other stones in the vicinity – it is not part of a collapsed wall enclosure, or old sheep-pen.

So now we need the experts – and if it turns out to be nothing significant, then at least I tried.

[Another note: how ‘dolmens’ and ‘pierres droites’ can get confused is for the next post.]

[And one note more: I have now notified the Vice-President of SESA, Michel Prun, of my ‘discovery’. For the last three years he has been a great help in the library. All the coordinates and photos have been sent to SESA, and the archaeologist-in-charge Guy Rancoule, has been notified. SESA’s once youngest, and now oldest member – Regis Aymé  – has volunteered to visit the site to give his opinion. I could still end up looking like a fool. Or I could have ‘unearthed’ my first dolmen.]

Megalithic markers   3 comments

All the rain that never fell this summer is falling now and will continue to fall for days yet.

Which gives me time and excuse enough to work up my latest observations into a Grand Theory. In the course of the last few weeks I have been trying to make sense of the scant information about the dolmens of  ‘les causses de Siran’ that has filtered down through the decades, and thus locate and identify them. One small key was a brief mention of the Peyro-Rousso dolmen by Jean Miquel de Barroubio in his 1896 ‘Essai sur l’arrondissement de St. Pons’. The dolmen, he says, is both ‘un rendezvous de chasseurs’ and ‘une borne entre les communes de Siran et La Livinière’.

Earlier this year I had noted that the two dolmens at Fournes, and the menhir, were also located at a boundary: that between Siran and Cesseras. Yesterday it occurred to me that these may not be solitary examples, accidents or exceptions: there might be others.

There were indeed. To economise on space I have randomly paired the following screen-captures of megaliths in the area. The purple line appears when you add the ‘Unités Administratives > Limites Administratives’ layer on the IGN site.

There are twenty so far: the last example – the two menhirs at Tournissan – is the most graphic.

Above : Agel and Ventenac  –  Below : Arques and Talairan

Above : Azille and Tourril  –  Below : Balsabé (or Cigalière) and Jappeloup

Above: in the top left corner the dolmen of les Lauzes couvertes, or Liquieres, near Cébazan – and the two Villeneuve dolmens.

Below : the vanished standing-stones above Conilhac and Montbrun.

Above: Pépieux and Monze  –  Below : Laroque-de-Fa and Talairan

Above: one of the Massac dolmens, and (unmarked) the dolmen de la Roudounière – see Page, left.

Below: Trassanel and Olonzac

Below: two views of the menhir at Malves

And below are the last two: left – the higher of the two menhirs at Tournissan and right – the stone by the roadside.

Here they are seen together : there is no mistaking which direction the boundary line is following –

And here is a late addition: I should have thought earlier of  the Grand Menhir de Counozouls. It is 500 m. from the boundary between the communes of Counozouls and Roquefort-de-Sault, and 200 m. from the ‘ancien chemin‘ that linked the two villages. At 8.9 metres tall, and weighing 50 tons, it is the biggest in southern France, and one of the largest in Europe.

My theory is stuck at the ‘Chicken or Egg’ stage (for foreign readers, this means “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” It’s a common, if false dichotomy): were megaliths just useful and durable objects in a landscape, allowing communal boundaries to be easily drawn? Or were communes the extension, into a more modern world, of Neolithic tribal or clan territories? And if dolmens were sited so close to the borders of a neighbouring group – what implications does that have for our understanding of the functions and rituals that surround the burial-place? Were menhirs placed there as a warning or a welcoming sign?

Of course, what I have not shown are all the megaliths that are located far from any boundary-line. I don’t yet know which are the greater in number. Nor whether it is worth pursuing : perhaps it’s all random – perhaps all can be explained by ley-line energies.

A row of stones   Leave a comment

Before suddenly went offline at the end of March this year, I had, fortunately, saved exactly what this ‘Encyclopedia Gallica’  had reported on the prehistory of the commune of La Livinière :

# Dolmens de Combe-Marie, Calamiac, Combe-Violon, Combegrosse, Les Meulières, Fonsorgues, Pierre Rousse, Caussérel, Saussenac, Castel Bouqui.
# Alignement mégalithique à Saussenac.
# Habitat chalcolithique au nord-est de La Livinière.
# Traces de village néolithique à Parignoles.

Unfortunately there was no means of quizzing Quid about its sources – and now it is too late. Take that first entry : of the 10 dolmens cited, I have found only 3. The rest seem to have no parentage, and no further references. But they will haunt me for a good while yet – until I either track them down, or eliminate them as duplicates or confusions.

However – I may have found what is referred to in the second entry. Given the modest dimensions of our little neolithic sepulchres, this ‘Alignement mégalithique’ was never likely to win a prize in the All-France Henge Competition.

But it was intriguing and (increasingly) impressive, when I stumbled across it earlier this year while looking for the Combe Lignières dolmen :

It is an utterly enigmatic construction, 12 metres long and about 1 metre wide.

I would hazard a quess that it was first noted by Jean Miquel de Barroubio in the 1890’s. Erik Trinkhaus & Pat Shipman’s ‘The Neandertals’ (Pimlico 1993) sheds some light on these early days of archaeology and anthropology. Their chapter on ‘L’Affaire Moulin Quignon‘  illustrates the rush to satisfy this era’s (mid 19th. c.) appetite for prehistoric artifacts and bones.

The early amateur-prehistorian, Boucher de Perthes, claimed to have located a hominid jawbone in a quarry near Abbeville in Picardy. He had been finding ‘bi-face‘ flint tools in the area for 30 years –  and desperately needed fossilized bones to go with this early human industry. Local workmen duly presented him with this example, supposedly accompanied by a flint axe, both from a layer dated to 300,000 BCE. Other French experts backed him, while German and English experts were skeptical. An international commission was called in 1863, and it became a ’cause célèbre’. The English were permitted to study a tooth from the jawbone – and found it to be not fossilized at all, and probably neolithic. The French refused to countenence these findings, and pronounced in favour of Boucher. Jacques Boucher died in 1868, still proclaiming it to be authentic. Within 30 years the French had quietly dropped their support, without ever formally declaring it to have been a fake.

Trinkhaus & Shipman stress the following point: ‘ At Moulin Quignon, there was probably little intention to foil the progress of science. Almost certainly, the motivation was a transparently simple one: if Boucher de Perthes would pay good money for hand-axes, and promised even better bonuses for bones, why shouldn’t the workmen indulge him, and enrich themselves? What could be the harm?’

Well, the harm could be considerable. To the reputation of this early scientist in particular, to the reputations of subsequent amateur archaeologists in general, and to the methods employed by other ‘gentlemen-scientists’.

Trinkhaus & Shipman stress that this ‘find’ of Boucher’s was not an isolated incident: ‘As early as 1859, rumours and scurrilous stories were circulating that Boucher was being fooled by modern, counterfeited stone tools. Because of the near-universal practice of paying workmen to excavate and rewarding them for good finds, the door was wide open to fakery. Indeed, the Abbeville area was notorious for it, perhaps because of Boucher’s unbridled enthusiasm.’

One of the probably apocryphal stories is as follows: ‘While walking through the streets of Abbeville, a gentleman passed a peasant sitting on his doorstep, diligently chipping stone. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I am making Celtic axes for Monsieur Boucher.”

I have cited this at length because it goes some way to explaining how our own local ‘gentlemen-prehistorians’ managed to amass such an extensive catalogue of sites – in Jean Miquel de Barroubio’s case, the entire length of the Minervois Hills from Carcassonne to St. Pons. As I have discovered, it takes many weeks of visits to cover just a few sections of  ‘causses’. His list of prehistoric sites was almost certainly compiled with the help of scores of ‘informants’ : shepherds and herdsmen, farmers and forestrymen, hunters and poachers . . . Word had undoubtedly gone out, that a wealthy landowner and collector was seeking suitable sites and artifacts. This, I am fairly sure, was how the original lists were made, with all their confusions and duplications and variations, over names and locations. And, possibly, how and why so many dolmens were pulled apart to get at the grave-goods within.

Capstones weighing many tonnes are not lifted clear by a pair of grave-robbers. A beam of sufficient length and strength would need a small band of men to carry it the many kilometres on site. Larger capstones would require a strong draught-horse, or a couple of oxen, complete with harness and thick rope or chains. This amount of equipment and manpower must have been paid for somehow.

Why prehistory had suddenly, in the mid-19th century, become worth spending time and money on – had in fact become a Europe-wide fascination during this epoch – involves Darwin and the rise of Prussia. But all that must wait for another post.

For more photos & information about the Saussenac Stone Alignment – see under Pages >Menhirs.

Posted October 8, 2010 by Richard Williams in Uncategorized

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The Fournes stone : mystical menhir or mediaeval marker?   2 comments

We’re still up on Le Causse de Siran – and could be here for quite a while yet . . .

It’s a big, heart-shaped expanse of featureless garrigue, ribbed with little gullies and sudden ravines – and at its widest it is three kilometers across. If the Peyro-Rousso dolmen marks its western border with the commune of La Livinière, then its eastern limit is marked by the two Fournes dolmens – and this standing stone. The boundary-line between Siran and Minerve to the east runs right through it.

It’s not very big or impressive – which may explain why it has gone unremarked.  The only place it appears is on Bruno Marc’s list of menhirs of Herault – where it is described as 1m. 35 long (about right) – but ‘couché’ : fallen over.

However – this stone does not look like it has recently been resurrected (extensive evidence of weathering and more importantly, lichens) : so one wonders where Marc got his information from. I suspect that part of his list for the Aude and Herault is based on Sicard’s 1929 Inventory.

Menhirs cause trouble. They may not mean to – but they do. Some are magnificent – and somewhat manly. Others are more modest. Some are carved and others are just lumps of rock. This one is on a border line and has an ‘orientation’ of North/South, while others seem to ‘point’ in random directions and are in the middle of nowhere. Some have neolithic artifacts around their bases – others are documented as mediaeval constructions.

And then there are the theories that would have these stones as geo-astrologic artifacts : coordinates for mapping the heavens or conduits for ley-line energies.

[Note: In the interests of balance and fairness – here is a link to a site that takes all that stuff very seriously, and a stage further. It’s a home-grown site that maps our region into a veritable spiders-web of energies. So you can all go out and put his exhaustive theories to the test. Please report back here the moment you feel more centred, or spiritual – or silly.]

I sometimes wish I had not stumbled across this one : there is just too little – or too much – to say on the matter of Lone Stones.

There is more (basic) information and a few more photos on the Fournes menhir Page – now to the left, on the new-look site. GPS coordinates will be available through SESA in Carcassonne, or from me.