Archive for the ‘hillfort’ Category

Up on La Planette   Leave a comment

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.

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Mégalithes Imaginaires   Leave a comment

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.

To the dolmens – by tramway   Leave a comment

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.]

Oppidum de Minerve-la-Vieille   Leave a comment

The single defensive wall of Minerve-la-Vieille can be seen from an altitude of 10 kilometers (if you know what to look for), and is possibly the biggest visible prehistoric structure in the south of France.

At 6 km. it looks like this, a white bar in the top left corner:

At 2 km. like this:

The visible section is about 60 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 2 m. high. It is a massive and dramatic example of an ‘ éperon barré‘   – literally a barred spur, a closed-off 5 hectare tip of a high ‘peninsular’ with sheer drops of 40 metres on the east and west flanks.

The term ‘oppidum’ might seem inappropriate – it more resembles  ‘une enceinte fortifiée ‘  similar to that at Le Cros near Caunes, than the more compact Gallo-Roman structures like Pic St. Martin. There are no documents on the web to be found about it – just a couple of brief mentions:

M. J. Laurent-Mathieu  Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1935  Volume 32

un camp celtique (oppidum) appelé « Minerve-la-Vieille », est délimité sur deux faces par un angle de la falaise à pic, et protégé sur sa troisième face, par un mur colossal en pierre sèche (long. 80 m. X haut. 2 m. X larg. 2m50).


It certainly is a ‘colossal wall’ – and placed in the midst of a wilderness of scrub, it’s one of the strangest places I’ve visited.

More photos and info on the Minerve-la-Vieille Page.

What the hell are you doing here? (Part 2)   2 comments

Since Mid-Winter’s Day I’ve been up on les Causses de Minerve about ten times, and I’ve only ever met two people up there, in all those hours of walking. In February, it was my good fortune to meet a Remarkable Man, a once-in-a-lifetime event. In March it was a minor fonctionnaire from the Forestry. Neither meeting began well. I don’t need to be fluent in French – I can read faces at a hundred paces:  What the hell are you doing here?

I was looking for the oppidum at La Gasque.

It turns out that Minerve has an excess of oppida : there’s supposed to be one on the Pont Natural, and the €1 million rebuild of the the Remparts and the Visitors Centre has revealed another, on the existing site of Minerve. Another is supposedly located at Brunan, and yet another has been documented at Les Lacs ( une enceinte vérazienne et village préhistorique, searched by Paul Ambert’s archaeological team, in the ’70’s).

But the one I was looking at is well-attested (though there is no documentation online) :

[It’s pink, to the left of Minerve]

None of all this impressed André Giral, who had been watching me clambering over the pile of white rocks with camera and notebook. I realise that my appearance and behaviour can seem doubtful : old clothes, wild hair, disreputable van – but since my motives are honorable and my conscience is clear, then I am happy to confront the suspicions of others.

He was out with his dogs, looking after the young pheasants that had just been let loose on the terrain. He didn’t want anyone upsetting them. He’d never heard of this oppidum. He didn’t like the idea of me writing about the place. He didn’t want any more people coming up onto les Causses. I got the feeling he didn’t like people.

He had once been a great man for the hunt it seemed. But now?  ‘ça me dégoûte.’

Everything about the modern world upset him: he swept his arms about the seemingly wild and untrammelled landscape and declared that it was empty. He was 84 he said, and only twenty years ago the hills were full of birds and game. I said I thought they still were. He derided this: a fraction of the wildlife was left. Few birds, no rabbits, no insects. Plants and trees had disappeared. He’d walked these hills for decades, and he saw the decline.

His anger and despair at human folly and pollution occupied our entire walk back to the road. He had however accepted that my interest was genuine and was not going to bring yet more tourists, whom he clearly held in low esteem. It emerged that he too had conducted research into the prehistoric vestiges on these hills – and that I should be concentrating my efforts on le Causse Grand and Causse Mégié, where the ‘real’ oppidum, Minerve-la-Vieille, was sited.  And as we were about to part, he seemed to come to a decision – he said he might have something for me in his van. From under a pile of sacks he produced a muddied plastic ring-folder.

It was the most astonishing document that I have ever handled :  his own hand-drawn maps and scale plans of all the prehistoric sites on the Causses. It is dated 1985, the year he stopped pot-holing and dolmen-hunting. He just handed it to me, with no further demands or assurances. An hour earlier I was a foreign intruder – now I was entrusted with half a life-time’s study and experience.

There are ten A4 pages of detailed drawings : dolmens and grottes, rock-shelters and wells, prehistoric cabins and walls. Tracks, cliffs and streams. He wanted me to continue – ‘parce que vous etes jeune’ – and he was no longer able for it. His regret at the decline of the world and at his own failing powers affected me deeply. He had fortuitously crossed paths with someone who could understand and appreciate what had meant so much to him.

I am revisiting all his places and giving them GPS coordinates: they will form part of a document that will be presented to S.E.S.A. (la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude)  and its archaeological library. No further GPS coordinates will be given on this website.

The claims of the current guide-book to the dolmens of les Causses de Minerve, and the other Causses des Montagnes Noires, are negligent and inaccurate. They fail any serious attempt at documenting the extent of these half-forgotten places : it’s not enough to say that they are ‘difficilement trouvables‘.

André Giral was sixty when he made these maps, when he stopped going down pot-holes and through garrigue. Looking down at me from his height, and his age, he said: You’re still young. I wish I had your youth again.

I know now – as I have never fully known before – what I am doing here. It is as much the finding of old stones, as it is the meeting with extraordinary men.

Photos and info on La Gasque Oppidum are on the Page, right.

Posted April 1, 2010 by MH in chalcolithic, hillfort, languedoc, oppidum

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Dolmen de Boun Marcou   Leave a comment

When I first started exploring this whole area around Mailhac, and learnt that an oppidum was not a Roman fort but a Chalcolithic hill settlement, and that there was not just one but three necropoli, and that there existed a cave by a spring, and that there was a dolmen there too, and that the whole affair had been evolving and developing for a thousand years – I realised that getting all the information and photos and maps for the whole complex was going to stretch my abilities at ‘blorganisation’.

And so it proved : there are now posts and pages that don’t seem to come in any order, nor seem shaped in any cohesive way. I’m more of a reader than a librarian or a methodical historian. I’m hoping the tags will sort it all out, and that the grouping of all the topics under a ‘parent page’ will gather most of it together.

And consistent with this inconsistency, I shall now introduce the writer who introduced me to the whole subject of protohistory – who, fittingly was not an archaeologist at all, but an American and a poet : Gustaf Sobin. The book is ‘Luminous Debris. Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc’. It was a propitious find in a Carcassonne second-hand bookshop. It is by turns dense, lively, academic, joyful – his chapter on Mailhacian pottery and its pictographs was exhilarating speculation and has inspired in me what I hope will be a life-long interest.

It sent me immediately to search the Internet – where I found references to the ‘vieux village ‘, and to the Grotte de Treille , and finally to the dolmen of Boun Marcou on a small hill called Trigodinnas, right next to Lou Cayla.

boun-marcou-chevet-to-foot

View from the chevet or headstone, to the foot.

For more on this go to Boun Marcou dolmen, Mailhac Page.

Lou Cayla, Mailhac : one of The High Places   Leave a comment

Les hauts lieux.

French is an impoverished language. Its dictionaries are a third smaller than ours, but it still manages to be poetic and expressive. So when I say I’ve just visited one of ‘les hauts lieux ‘ I don’t mean an arduous climb. I’ve just explored one of the great places in the south of France – massive, significant and important. But for all this it is still a low-lying, modest site with little to distinguish it from the landscape around.

vieux-village-3

The story is both extraordinary and humdrum. A fourteen-year-old girl, Odette Taffanel, begins to find things in her family’s vineyards in 1929. After the War, in 1948, she starts taking it seriously. In the 50’s she ropes in her younger brother Jean. Their work together unearths one of the biggest late bronze/early iron age sites in the Midi. Archaeologists flock to the site, and careers are made. She is awarded the Legion d’Honneur . The site and its findings are considered so significant that ‘Mailhacais’ becomes a benchmark for pottery and funerary rites in the Urn-Field culture of southern France. At 93, she is still writing and publishing – and still receiving visitors at her house in the village.

tomb-grand-bassin-1

Photo of a grave emplacement – Necropolis  Bassin 1

But the story of Lou Cayla goes back further than the Ancien Village – it starts with water from an abundant spring, a grotto, and a dolmen, all on the same small insignificant hill.

For more info and photos on all these aspects, see the Lou Cayla Parent Page.