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.

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