Combe Marie coffre   Leave a comment

In naming this I am following Paul Ambert’s study here : Le coffre de Combe-Marie à La Livinière (Hérault) et les sépultures à incinérations pré-hallstattiennes du Midi de la France [Gallia préhistoire 1976 Volume 19 pp. 265-286].

Compared to earlier accounts of digs in the area, this report is rich in both practical detail ( there are map coordinates, but based on la carte de l’Etat-Major at 1: 50,000 so it’s no use to anyone without a IGN Paris membership) and even directions on how to find it (!).

The photo above shows the view from the foot : the cracked headstone has recently fallen forwards, revealing the dark red earth behind. It is a much reduced and tumbled-down affair, of very modest proportions. The tumulus is barely 5 metres across, and the orthostats are some of the smallest I’ve seen.

These are the orthostats at the north end : two facing eachother and the two split stones of the ‘chevet’ fallen forward between them.

Because ‘le caisson’ was so small, Ambert had to use squares of 33cm. instead of 1m. as he sectioned off the area.

It’s much more complicated than it looks, to an untrained visitor like me. For a very small tomb – it seems highly organised.

In the photo above the dimensions of the headstone are clear to see : it was no more than 60 cm. tall and 90 cm. wide, and not very deeply set in the earth.

Paul Ambert’s discoveries : the 880 teeth, and evidence of incinerated bones dating to the chalcolithic/bronze age – indicate a different kind of burial ritual, where bodies or parts were brought from ‘elsewhere’ to this tomb. The number of teeth surprised him, as it represents a possible total of 280 people (in addition to the crania of four adults and one child). This is an extraordinary figure, given the reduced size of the chamber, and the short period it was in use, 3 or 4 centuries he calculates from the items found mixed with the human remains. Ambert posits a subsequent utilisation of the tomb. His report goes on to examine the other instances in the region where such practices took place. It seems that incineration was practiced, well before the Iron Age cultures – but not extensively.

And he does not speculate – but I might – that this ‘crowded’ but unimpressive tomb could have been the burial place for criminals, and others who were not considered worthy of inclusion in the major clan dolmen. I have not looked into any archaeological speculation about what morality might have meant in those times. But if we are urged to think of Neolithic communities as similar to our own village life – then the idea of crime and sin, banishment and exclusion must come too.

The dead must be dealt with : the effort expended to honour the clan’s dead could well have a parallel : the need to neutralise or cleanse or placate the transgessing spirit. These little tombs and tumuli might represent the community doing ‘the least’ they could or should, for all those who broke taboos, committed ‘crimes’ – or simply came from somewhere else, and did not belong in the clan’s dolmen. The burning of a body – in the context of a culture that seemed to celebrate the cycle of death/desiccation in grotto/dismemberment/communal entombment – seems exceptional.

Perhaps I should not have done this – but I set the split headstone upright again. I usually clear weeds and shrubs at every tomb, in order to prevent the stones being pushed over – so I felt it was only one step further to setting these stones up again. The likely causes of the collapse could be either flood damage, or wild boars rooting or scratching against them. The emptying of a tomb by successive archaeologists can also weaken the foundations, and any refilling with earth would not last long in heavy rain.

There may well grow – out of this website and with the help of some of its readers and local volunteers – an ‘Association’ dedicated to the upkeep of these semi-forgotten tombs. In which case we would need the assistance of a qualified archaeologist. I wonder if there are any that care about these poor ‘épaves’ anymore?

The photo above shows the headstone back in place, and the opening to the tomb oriented directly at Alaric mountain, due south. Why Ambert designates all the dolmens he studied up here on Les Causses, as oriented towards the north is puzzling. He does not mention the orientation of this tomb at all, in this report. But elsewhere, as in his essay on Les Allées de l’Aude et dolmens à antichambre, he states:

Dolmen type : le dolmen 2 de Chaffret à Félines (Hérault).
1) Son orientation, 85°, n’est pas sans importance ; elle est assez semblable à celle relevée dans les dolmens 1 de Chaffret (35°), 6 des Lacs à Minerve (60°), et 2 de Mousse à Siran (90°), tous dolmens à antichambre indéniables. Par contre des tombes de même type, dolmen du Vallat des Vignes à La Livinière (10), comme les dolmens assez proches typologiquement de Mousse 1 à Lauriole (11) et de Lauriole 1 à Siran sont plus nettement orientés vers le Nord. Ils suivent en cela un nombre important des dolmens locaux (qu’il s’agisse de dolmens à couloir ou des allées de l’Aude). Ce critère n’est donc pas absolu.

[Paul Ambert  Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française  1975 Volume 72]

The coordinates will be available at the library of La Societé d’Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude. It is open on Wednesday afternoons, and membership costs €28. Or you can ask me. I do not encourage freelance treasure-seekers with metal-detectors, nor do I help guide-writers.

Posted May 10, 2010 by Richard Williams

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