Archive for the ‘dolmen’ Category
Four years ago I started this blog without any plan. I had just read a book, Luminous debris: reflecting on vestige in Provence and Languedoc,
… in which the expatriate American Gustaf Sobin sifts the remnants of the past for the “mirroring images they might provide” to the present.
. . . Interpreting vestige with the eloquence of a poet and the knowledge of a field archaeologist, and drawing on prehistory, protohistory, and Gallo-Roman antiquity, the twenty-six essays in this book focus on a particular place or artifact for the relevance inherent in each.
It was an inspiration, and it led to me being told of a forgotten and unmarked dolmen in the hills above our village. It puzzled me then that no care or attention (or respect) was being paid to these earliest burial places. (It puzzles me still).
I became concerned that these sites would disappear from our communal knowledge, as the old folk who knew their location passed away, and the invading garrigue hid them from view.
Puzzlement > concern > plan : I would locate all the dolmens and menhirs in our region. Visit them, photograph them and provide a basic description. And more important than anything else – locate them with GPS co-ordinates. So that – for as long as the satelites fly in the sky – others will be able to walk to them. To pay respect, and in return receive understanding or insight or simply – connection.
The plan has all the outward signs of being scientific and intellectual, but the aim encompasses our greater needs : the contemplation of death and ruin. In our forward rush towards ‘ever-more’ and progress, loss and death and disappearance are banished from view.
Here are two dolmens that have been ‘saved’ from this process. Friend and co-researcher Joel Bouakaz found them. They have never been written about, never marked on a map, never entered the archaeological record.
Side by side, on a windswept slope above Roquefère, these tombs have gone unremarked – in written records – for millennia, until an amateur enthusiast formally located them.
Above: the larger, western tomb. It is a work of art (if art is love, respect, wonder, and skill). Below: the smaller tomb, just 20 paces to the east.
These two dolmens (or Chasséen cistes, or sub-mégalithique tombes à dalles, or whatever) lie buried on a hillside just a kilometer due west of the well-known Ventajous dolmen. On the very next hill – just across the valley. What does this tell us about the current interest in our local prehistory?
More information on these, on the Miraval dolmens Page, left. And as usual: all coordinates & information will be published & presented to SESA in Carcassonne in 2012.
Only in this département – Aude – could this happen. A dolmen, known to the speleologists of the region, and known to the botanists of the region – known presumably to every ‘chasseur de sanglier’ and his dog – has somehow, for over a century, remained unknown to any archaeologist of the region.
[Correction: the dolmen does appear in a collection of regional studies : La France des dolmens et des sepultures collectives (4500-2000 avant J.-C.). edited by Philippe Soulier – 1996. The Megalithic Portal references its existence too, courtesy of The Captain, an indefatigable researcher. However, neither its location nor any description has ever appeared in the archaeological records.]
There can be few places in the modern western world that take so little interest in their prehistoric heritage, as the Aude. There have been only two surveys of megalithic sites in the département: Germain Sicard’s in 1929 and Michel Barbaza’s in 1979. Bruno Marc’s guide books cobble together these two haphazardly: he does little research, and errors are passed on without examination.
The register of megalithic sites has been inadequate and incomplete for decades. Megalithic sites need to be described: length, height, orientation. Their exact position needs to be marked. And a description of their current state should be made.
That is where I came in, quite by chance. And soon after, that is where Joel Bouakaz came in. Three years ago, unknown to eachother, we embarked on a search of the earliest signs of human habitation in the region. His area of interest is rock engravings and ceremonial workings (an abstruse area of study that encompasses offering-basins, sacrificial bowls, and astrological markings; while mine was funerary architecture). Naturally they would intersect – and now happily we are meeting and walking together, and sharing our discoveries.
His finds are extraordinary : ‘pierres à cupules’, standing-stones, stone alignments, dolmens, neolithic house-foundations – as well as doubtful mediaeval land boundary-markers. He has put hundreds of hours of difficult foot-work into his own survey. I too have tramped the hills. But together we are now able to re-write the map of this part of prehistoric France.
How is it possible that a retired amateur Englishman and an untutored French tradesman can produce ‘ Une Nouvelle Inventaire des Sites Mégalithiques de l’Aude’ ?
That’s something for the local French experts to discuss.
More info on the Roquefort dolmen page.
The archaeological story of the dolmens of La Matte (or la Planette – or Planete, the official ‘lieu-dit‘ as it appears on the land-register) begins with Germain Sicard’s report and map of his visit in 1891. Two years later Jean Miquel, of Barroubio, also explored the plateau and found one more dolmen that Sicard had missed.
The story ends in the late 1952, when le docteur Jean Arnal published his collected reports : ‘Excursions sur les Causses de Minerve’. Here he recounts how, during the summer of 1947 (World War 2 barely finished) he covered 250 kilometres by car across all the limestone uplands around Minerve. He explored le Causse de Siran, or St. Julien, the causses de Minerve, les dolmens des Lacs and the nécropolis de Bois-Bas.
For the 7 kilometre walk around the plateau de la Matte, he had as guides a father-and-son team of truffle-hunters, MMrs. Agussol. As expert companions he brought Odette and Jean Taffanel, and Madeleine Cavalier and Louis Jeanjean. The Taffanels – a brilliant autodidact brother and sister team – had made their name locally and nationally by discovering a Neolithic/Bronze age/Iron age complex above their village of Mailhac.
Together they brought the total of tombs to 16. It was an impressive achievement – marred only by the lack of a detailed map, or any coordinates. His textual descriptions seem accurate – until one tries to follow them. An initial gross error occurs when he lists his discoveries : ‘en allant d’est en ouest’ – when in fact he means the opposite: from west to east.
His naming is also less than helpful: his two ‘dolmens de l’Oppidum’ are nowhere near the so-called ‘oppidum’ – they are half a kilometre to the south-east, above the ancient manganese mine. Other names for dolmens seem picked from a hat: ‘le dolmen de la vallée du Cros’ is high up on the top of the plateau and over half a kilometre south-east of the valley and the Cros stream.
Arnal’s report is at pains to accord earlier researchers due respect, while asserting the progress that archaeological studies have achieved – and bemoaning the damage done to the historical record by the incompetencies of others. He remarks on the accelerated damage in the intervening decades: heedless treasure-hunters are castigated, and one local man is named : ‘un docteur Delmas, de Rieux, aurait vidé quelques sepulchres’. A veritable grave-robber! He later describes the situation thus: ‘la destruction sur le plateau de la Matte a été accélérée au début de notre sciècle par des fouilles intempestives pratiquées par des collectionneurs qui sacrifiaient l’architecture à la recherche de belles pièces’.
Jean Arnal is held in the highest respect for his work in the region – but his exemplary character is not mirrored in his style of writing. It is already heading in the direction of ‘scientist-speak’. To convey the impact of this extraordinary place, he falls back on the words of Germain Sicard, written 60 years before : ” C’est un vaste champ de calcaire bouleversé, un chaos en miniature, une ancienne plateforme brisée par quelque convulsion du sol…”
His photos however, do manage (despite the poor reproduction) to convey its earlier state of barren abandonment – and its flatness: it is indeed a planeto.
This view of Costelonge 1 extends for many hundreds of metres – before dropping away abruptly – there is nothing growing taller than knee-high. Nowadays evergreen oak and box and scrub-pine crowd the scene – the sheep and goats and wood-gatherers are all long gone. The archaeologists too seem to have lost interest in the place and would seem content to let it all fall from memory. Their work and their careers were funded by taxpayers’ money, but they none of them seem to consider that they owe anything much back to us, in the way of information, explanation – or even simple direction. Did they not think that we too would want to know more about our ancestors – and perhaps visit their extraordinary tombs?
Were it not for researchers like Bruno Marc, and Joel ‘un modeste chercheur‘, and myself – this extraordinary place would disappear completely from public conciousness, overwhelmed by undergrowth and ignorance.
My own account and photos of these dolmens will appear, over the following weeks, in their own Pages.
Childhood interests can ignite life-long passions. For Jean Miquel de Barroubio, in the 1860’s, his long walk to and from school began a distinguished career as collector and researcher of the complex geology of our region. For Germain Sicard, at the same time, the hill above his family ‘domaine’ at Les Rivières, Félines-Minervois, must have been a similar playground, full of archaeologic wonders.
From the Bronze age hillfort of Le Cros at the western end, to the mediaeval castle of Ventajou at the east, the plateau of La Planette – which extends over an area of 400 hectares (3 km long by 1 km wide) – is filled with fascinating stone structures : 16 megalithic tombs, two burial mounds, ancient mines, marble quarries, a stone fort and a standing stone. It is also called La Matte, after an impressively restored farm on its southern lip.
Sicard reported on his finds, in a bulletin of S.E.S.A. in 1896. He had gone up there in 1891 with his good friend Capitaine Savin, who was more interested in the ‘étrange construction’ in the middle of the plateau:
Guy Rancoule, senior departmental archaeologist specialising in the Iron age, confirmed to me recently that this was indeed a military stronghold – but of much later construction. It’s strange – but it’s not an oppidum.
In the same bulletin, Sicard published his map of this extraordinary place:
It was this map, plus the report written by le Docteur Arnal in 1948 ‘Excursion sur les causses de Minerve’ that has lead me a merry chase. Over many visits I have only managed to find two of the dolmens, the one menhir, and the ‘oppidum’.
Bruno Marc has done much better: he found most of them back in 1996. Recently he has included a few scanned photos of some of them, on his site.
But then a week ago – out of the blue – I received a comment here on this site, and then detailed emails from another dolmen-hunter: Joel. And it was Joel and his precise GPS coordiates that enabled me to visit six dolmens up there, this last weekend – all in one day. I appreciate how many hours and days of laborious searching were needed. Joel’s discovery of these previously imprecisely-located sites has impressed me immensely – and when you go up there you too will realise how difficult it is to find anything in this extraordinarily-jumbled landscape.
Equally chaotic is the naming and numbering of each tomb. Sicard, Miquel, Arnal and Bruno have all given different names to the scattered dolmens. With GPS and by working strictly from West to East I am proposing a definitive placement that will be presented to la Société d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’ Aude, as part of the first complete geolocalised Inventory of the megaliths of the Aude.
Over the next few weeks, each of the six dolmens I visited will be given their individual Page. And in the meantime, I might just get back up there to find all the others.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
In 1919 Germain Sicard added a supplement to his Inventaire of 1900 :
His energy and enthusiasm for archaeology had reached the furthest corners of the département, and in this publication he lists all the reports received by S.E.S.A. in the intervening years. He repeated the exercise in 1926: this final ‘Essai sur les Monuments Mégalithiques du département de l’ Aude‘ was subsequently published in the annals of la Société Préhistorique Française in 1929.
There were of course some errors of identification by correspondants, that Sicard never visited nor corrected. His reputation has suffered as a result of these. With such a wide variety of construction types and no standard textbooks on the dolmens of France, it was inevitable that a few faux-dolmens entered his list. Over-enthusiatic members reported one at Mancès, above Cassagnoles. It featured, as recently as last year, in Quid’s entry for the commune. I went there myself – and was directed to it by a farmer’s wife who knew it well: but it was simply a balanced jumble of stones, a glacial erratic or the result of erosion.
Likewise I fear that at least two of Madame Landriq’s ‘finds’ were similar accidental arrangements. Yet another that is included in his Inventory, near Tourouzelle, is the result of a collapsed strata of rock that has tumbled against others down the slope.
In my efforts to compile an up-to-date inventory, I have been working my way through all available lists of megalithic sites. But there was one report that I repeatedly overlooked. It concerned a ‘cromlech’ or at least a circular arrangement of large stones near Thézan:
Mme. de Lachapelle’s vivid impressions of a vaste boneyard of giants or prehistoric animals, evidently intrigued Germain Sicard, for he includes it in both the 1919 and this, the 1929 Inventoire. But it is equally evident that he did not take her seriously enough to look into the matter.
Madame was not imagining things – she just did not realise what she was looking at. It was not a cromlech nor a boneyard: it is a Bronze Age ‘enceinte fortifiée’ – a defensive hillfort. And within the wall-structure is what appears to be a dolmen.
It has gone unremarked as far as I can tell, for almost a century: that is, it does not appear on any survey or list. It has been searched however, for a section of the original wall has been revealed, and other shallow holes excavated. Someone in the region knows exactly what it is – but has not notified the authorities.
I have sent in my report to S.E.S.A. so that my ‘discovery’ be a matter of record.
More information plus photos and video appear on the Roque Hillfort Page.
As early as 1900, Germain Sicard (founder-member of la Société d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude) began to compile an inventory of the prehistoric sites in the département. In 1895 Jean Miquel de Barroubio had published his small volume ‘Un Essai sur l’Arrondissement de St. Pons’. These two early writings formed the starting point for most of the subsequent searches by our regional archaeologists.
I nearly bought a copy of Miquel’s Essai in Montolieu a few weeks ago – but couldn’t justify its price (a reasonable €60) to Mary, or myself. The chapter on the megaliths of the Minervois is short, and the descriptions too vague to be of any practical help. And I was reminded of how young the study of dolmens was: Miquel still referred to them as ‘celtique’ and ‘druidique‘.
In that same year Abbé Boudet privately published his preposterous book ‘La Vrai Langue Celtique et Le Cromleck de Rennes-les-Bains‘. He evidently hoped to make his name as a ‘Man of Letters’, joining La Société des Arts et Sciences de Carcassonne at this time, and then the Société Linguistique de Paris. He even sent a copy to the British Royal Court. It’s not surprising to me – a graduate in Anglo-Saxon and Old English, and Master in English Literature – that this so-called ‘érudite’ was little more than a clever schoolboy, obsessed with words and language. It looks more than likely that at least one priest, directed by Edmond Boudet the lawyer, subverted the wills of several dying patients who had come to Rennes as a last resort.
At this point Occam’s Razor should be applied: “the simplest explanation is more likely the correct one”. All attempts to put an occult gloss on what are probably just banal criminalities – reflect more on the pervasive gullibility of a badly-educated public.
This petty story of pseudo-science and pulp-fiction fantasy has spread down the years: through the appallingly written garbage of Dan Brown and Kate Mosse. The semi-educated of each generation have become gullible consumers of half-digested history.
The rationalists and scientists of ‘La Société Scientifique de l’ Aude’ have tried to counter the swelling tide of ignorance and stupidity over a period of years. Sicard himself – by then President of Carcassonne’s archaeological society and about to become the vice-president of la Société Francaise de l’Archaeologie – felt the need to visit Rennes-le-Chateau in 1927 to settle the matter:
[Note sur les Croix Rupestres des Corbières. G. Sicard. Bulletin S.E.S.A. 1928]
He closes his essay in no uncertain terms, berating Boudet for his vague and arbitrary etymologies, his over-heated imagination, his fantasising tendencies and his utter lack of understanding of this ‘new science’:
His politeness barely conceals his contempt for Boudet’s ignorant assertions. Forty years later another attempt at dispersing the fog of fantasy was deemed necessary. Guy Rancoule’s ‘Note sur une tête sculptée’ ( Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude. 1969) states in clear terms the lack of scientific basis of Abbé Boudet’s fantasies:
“ses conclusions de linguiste celtisant (comme l’on l’entendait il y a un siècle) sont malheureusement empreinte de la plus haute fantaisie, on peut s’en convaincre aisément en parcourant son ouvrage. Ses attributions à des civilisations pré ou proto-historiques de “menhirs, dolmens, cromlechs” décrits et portés sur une carte par ailleurs géographiquement exacte, ne sont pas fondées. Nous avons pu constater qu’il s’agit dans tous les cas de phénomènes d’érosion sur une barre rocheuse naturelle.”
The fact that Boudet’s linguistic theories fell on deaf ears in and Paris and London; the fact that his ‘discovery’ of megaliths in mystical alignments was ridiculed by archaeologists, and that the book was pulped for lack of sales or interest; the probability that the money that flooded in to these corrupt priests was obtained by venal lawyers altering wills; the fact that one local priest was murdered and another empeached for their knowledge of the embezzlements – none of this will stop the under-educated from believing that ‘They’ – the authorities, the powers-that-be, the schoolteachers, the universities – ‘They’ are all wrong. And that a little club of Believers is right.
I wanted to find the second of the two ‘dolmens de Mayranne’, before writing anything about them. I ‘found’ the first early in December, and two weeks later returned to track the other one down.
I could only find one report on these dolmens – by Jacques Lauriol in the 1960’s – which provided coordinates for a map-series that is unfortunately no longer available. I knew only that one (Lauriol named it dolmen I de Mayranne) was at the eastern side of a small ravine, on le Causse de Coupiat; and the other one (dolmen II) lay on the western side seven hundred metres to the north, on le Causse de la Courounelle.
In the event, this second one was several hundred metres south of his location – nor was it ‘visible d’assez loin‘. In the intervening half-century the garrigue had grown thicker and taller without the herds of goats that once kept the landscape denuded. However, it was another of those preternaturally warm and windless winter days so I did not mind zig-zagging my way across the wierd shrub-and-rubble hillside until I stumbled upon it.
The mid-winter solstice is ten days away – this dolmen may have been built for that celebration: it faces 230° or due south-west. It’s a later, copper-age, sunset-facing passage grave; I might return on the 21st. to see if the sun’s last rays do actually strike the back of the tomb. Getting back out of this trackless wilderness in the dusk (with wild boar ever-present) might decide me against.
More photos & info on these can soon be found on these Pages: Coupiat dolmen (Mayranne I), and La Courounelle dolmen (Mayranne II).