Fournes dolmen No.2, Siran   Leave a comment

The two dolmens of Fournes on les Causses de Siran were first noted by Jean Miquel de Barroubio in 1896, but the first serious study only appeared in 1946, when le Docteur Arnal (with O. & J. Taffanel and M. Jeanjean) published his findings in Les Dolmens du Causse de St-Julien.

Of the two dolmens of Fournes on les Causses de Siran, this northerly one, is – or was – the most impressive. It takes a while to sort out the jumble of thick stones. Before the table was taken off, its architecture and ‘presence’ would have been much clearer – much stronger. Here is the sketch plan from the Arnal dig of the 1940’s that Paul Ambert reuses in the report of his excavation in the early ’70’s :

The ring of peristalths (or peristaliths) is remarkable, and this feature alone would make this dolmen a candidate for restoration-work. Here’s what we saw:

The photo above was taken from the NE rim of the tumulus, and shows the two western orthostats to the left with some of the eastern peristalths. Lambert’s report of the dig introduces the word ‘cromlech’ (a term repeated henceforth in other publications about prehistoric vestiges in the Minervois region, but never localised) – and then surmises that they are ‘servant de parement entravant l’érosion’. If that was their function, then they would have been more effective if set flat against the outward thrust. The diagram clearly shows them  radiating from a central point – like a compass, one might speculate, or a solar/lunar calendar. Ambert’s ‘retaining-wall theory’ is itself speculation, of a somewhat banal kind.

The photo above is taken from the capstone, looking down at the eastern peristalths. They ‘point’ in towards the centre, narrow edges towards the camera, their broad faces away.

Below is the jumble of stones at the southern foot of the dolmen, with my daughter Jessica – and signs of a high wind blowing.

Paul Ambert is content to reiterate some of Arnal’s s descriptions – which is unfortunate, since they, like parts of the map of the locations of the two dolmens, are inaccurate. Ambert repeats the Doctor’s story that the dolmen was used as a shelter by ‘écoliers’ making their way from the hamlets of Fournes and Fauzen to school at Cesseras.

I put this story to a local man who helped us find the dolmen; he thought it highly unlikely that the school-children would have trekked two hundred metres through the garrigue – when there was a spacious capitelle or stone hut right by the trackside.  In fact it was this inaccuracy in the story and on the map – mixing up the dolmen with the capitelle – that caused us to waste half the afternoon looking in the wrong area.

More alarming discrepancies were to come : our aimiable vigneron called into question Ambert’s version concerning the state of the dolmen – that ‘nous l’avons trouvé dans un état de délabrement lamentable’. Our local man remembers how it was before the archaeologists came : it was not in a ‘lamentably dilapidated’ state: it had a clear form and construction. The table or capstone was still in place, balanced on the tall eastern orthostat but tilted to the west. He remembers entering the tomb-space on all-fours, and seeing hunters standing high up on the table-top, scanning for game.

Ambert claims that somehow, in the 25 intervening years between Arnal’s visit and his own, ‘le dolmen a pu etre dévasté’. Our man however remembers that the people of Fauzan were very annoyed at the state Ambert’s team had left the dolmen  in, and demanded that something be done to protect the exposed tomb, now that the table had been shifted aside. Our good-natured guide laughed at their effort to comply : ‘une couche de béton n’est pas très archéologique’ he remarked as he showed us the remains of a layer of concrete at the bottom of the soil-less tomb.

Above is the interior of the dolmen, viewed from the head or north end and showing how the table has been lifted off the left-hand eastern orthostat, and is now propped up with a pile of rubble-stones.The photo below shows this more clearly :

The stones are large and thick slabs of ‘marne’, a sedimentary stone of the Eocene era, made of roughly equal parts clay and limestone. It is also known as ‘pierre de France’, as most buildings both grand and humble constructed in the last few centuries were made of it. The main orthostat is 1.5 m. long by 1.2m. high, and the table 2.6 x 2.1m. and 60 cm. thick. Once again here is evidence that the eastern, first orthostat, is much larger than all others : a recurrence all over our region that has gone unremarked by the experts.

Did Ambert move the table? We’ll probably never know. He certainly lifted off the capstone of one of the Mousse dolmens, a few kilometers away, during his visits up here, during this period of the early ’70’s. He tells us himself, in his report of the Mousse dig, that hauling the 40 kg. lifting-tackle up to the site was ‘un travail pénible‘. It would have been an easier job to bring the scaffolding and block-and-tackle and ropes to this site, as the track is good to within 200 metres. If so, the most serious question remains – why didn’t they put the capstone back?

Above is the view from the NW rim of the tumulus. The dolmen is a wide-corridor type, about 5 m. long by 1.2 wide, with an interior cella of 1.4 m. Ambert found the orientation of the other dolmen – Fournes I – difficult due to the electricity pylons nearby. He thought it was roughly N-S. For this dolmen he offers no orientation of his own, presumably accepting Arnal’s – which is merely a sketch, from which one must guess at roughly 30° NNE or 210° SSW. Perhaps, following in the great Doctor Arnal’s footsteps at a distance of 25 years, this is where Ambert picked up the peculiar habit of referring to all the dolmens he researched on these Causses as oriented to the north.

All of this is curious, particularly since the dolmen – clearly by my compass and GPS – opens directly due south. The High-Tension lines are a safe 400 metres away, running down in a valley that is well below the dolmen. One feels yet again, that this team was not concerned with such matters as location or direction or architecture – with looking at the dolmen as a locus of human activity. Their focus seems yet again fixed solely on what objects they can extract from the tomb.

The contents of the tomb will follow shortly, being the usual teeth, cranial bones, finger bones, long bones, bits of bronze and items of flint that are usually found in dolmens of the period.

Posted June 1, 2010 by Richard Williams

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