Archive for the ‘oppidum’ 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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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.

Semi-detached oppidum at le Carla, Durban Corbieres   10 comments

Quid.fr is France’s Encyclopedia Britannica – and has this to say about the canton of Durban Corbières:

Vestiges Préhistoriques : 1 – Oppidum de Carla. 2 – Habitation Gallo-Romain au Roc de Carla

. . . and that is the sum-total of information that I can find on the site. I came across this meagre thread while researching the dolmen de Palats which lies 2 km. north. We drove past le Roc a few days ago :-

oppidum roc de carla

– and the only words for it are impregnable and inhospitable. With uninhabitable running a close third. The first two are desirable in a defensive stronghold – but its location is not obvious. As far as I am aware this oppidum is a lone outpost, far from the linked chain of defensive hill-settlements that runs east-west along the Aude river valley to command the long-established trade-route [that became the Via Aquitania and now the Autoroute des Deux Mers]. It has intermittent streams at the base of the rock [Carla is a version of Cayla, or Caylar – occitan for caillou, or pebble – a diminuitively affectionate term for these jagged outcrops that were favoured sites throughout the region]. But the main river that runs through this fairly barren part of the Corbières is La Berre, and that passes well to the south, through Durban – with its mediaeval castle high on a rock.

It is also possible that this was one of the more northern oppida belonging to the ibero-celtic tribes who built the oppidum de Ruscino [at Perpignan] later to become the ‘capitol’ of the Roussillon region.

Had I been alone I would probably have spent a painfully futile afternoon up there, hoping for a photograph of a crumbled wall or two – but I had wiser counsel beside me. So we drove on to the dolmen. This now joins the lengthening list of sites that require some local knowledge – and a set of crampons.

Co-ordinates for the oppidum will be available from S.E.S.A. at Carcassonne – or from me.

The oppidum in Languedoc   Leave a comment

The word is derived from the early Latin ob-pedum: ‘enclosed space’, and possibly from the Proto-Indo-European ‘pedóm-‘ , an occupied space or footprint.
Julius Caesar described the larger Celtic Iron Age settlements he encountered in Gaul as oppida and the term is now used to describe the large pre-Roman towns that existed all across Western and Central Europe. Many oppida grew from hill forts but not all of them had defensive functions. The main features of the oppida are the architectural construction of the walls and gates, the spacious layout and commanding view of the surrounding area.
The development of oppida was a milestone in the urbanisation of the continent as they were the first large settlements north of the Mediterranean that could genuinely be described as towns. Caesar pointed out that each tribe of Gaul would have several oppida but that they were not all of equal importance, perhaps implying some form of hierarchy.

Hillforts, enclosures, defensive spurs, walls and ditches do not spring up in times of ease and peaceable neighborliness. It is during times of fear and uncertainty that massive effort is demanded of the local populace – producing, in our small area of the Aude, many significant ‘proto-castles’ during the transitional period Bronze final/ Premier Age de Fer.
The uncertainty must have started with the collapse of the Minoan civilisation, and again when vital trading links were lost with the end of the Mycenean empire. This Dark Age lasted for over three centuries. The fear? Rumours of a north-eastern race that were armed with new weapons and new skills: The Volques Tectosages and their Iron – the coming of the Celts.
Our local autocthones [native inhabitants] were the ‘peuples élisyques’ – a tribe centred on the Montlaurès hill-settlement, above the lagoons surrounding modern Narbonne – called by the Greek traders, Hélicé. South of here towards Spain were the Iberic tribes, and east towards Italy were the Ligurians. Herodotus of Halicarnassus writing in the 5th C BCE in his History [ Book 7 ch. 165] writes of a mercenary army made up of Phoenicians, Lybians, Iberians, Ligurians, Elysics, Sards [of Sardinia], and Cyrnians [Corsicans] – that is, all the tribes around the Gulf of Lion and the western Mediterranean.

For centuries preceeding the arrival of the Celts, the Elisycs ruled from Narbonne in the east to Carcassonne in the west. A short stretch of territory but an area that was rich in mineral wealth and full of cultural and historical wealth: the biggest dolmens, menhirs and necropoli in Languedoc. For millennia this land had been a benign and peaceable trading corridor : Pyrennean sheep herds in transhumance arriving from the South, Cornish tin and Irish silver in transit from the North, Cypriot copper and Greek wine in boats from the sea. All had to pass the marshy plain of the Atax/Attagus – the River Aude – between the foothills of the Montagnes Noires and the massif of Mont Alaric and the Corbieres Hills. All benefited from the mineral wealth – the gold and manganese – and the metallurgic skills of the local tribes. And from the peace and stability that had held since the Copper Age.
The breakdown of this civilisation led to the Dark Ages : the elaborately decorated pottery, the exchange of ornaments from afar, as evinced in funerary goods – gave way to a cruder and unadorned ceramic style, and to the rise of warrior classes and a heirarchy of power and protection.
Thus a series of proto-castles were constructed around -800 by the Elisyan people, on promontories that allowed commanding views out over the plain and the road and river traffic, and security from attack by means of massive earth- and stone-works. From the oppida by the sea at Peyriac-de-Mer and Pech Maho in the east, past the the two vast settlements at Montlaurès and Ensérune, to La Moulinasse at Salles d’Aude, and on west inland to one of the greatest settlement-towns of the hinterland : La Cayla at Mailhac. And thence to Mourrel-Ferret at Olonzac, Camp Rolland here above our village of Moux, and onward to the Cros hill fort at Caulnes-Minervois and the Millegrand oppidum at Trebes – with Carsac at Carcassonne at the eastern limit. The pattern continues up towards the Atlantic coast – all defending and provisioning the vital trade route to the North.
It was however the Volques Tectosages themselves, centred on Toulouse, who took them over and re-established the trading-routes, ceding them eventually to the Romans – who made good use of some of them, while razing others to the ground.

There are six main oppida here in The Aude – follow the links in the Pages panel to the right. The Cros Hillfort and the Pic St-Martin hillfort have already been published there – the Roc Gris oppidum will be next, followed by the Mourrel-Ferrat oppidum. More to follow.