Mousse dolmen 2   Leave a comment

The three dolmens of the Mousse group on les causses de Siran are no more than a few hundred metres apart, but the pair to the south have eluded most researchers and they now lie forgotten and overgrown, unreported for 40 years. I approached the group from below, from the south, eliminating ‘possible’ tumuli as I zigzagged up La Combe des Morts. As usual, it was through a mixture of planning and chance that I found the first. This, the middle one, is visible from its southerly neighbour, No. 3. And looks like this as you thrash through the garrigue :

It’s the big left-side orthostat – a recurrent feature unremarked by any previous visitor – that stands out amidst the box and ilex.

Paul Ambert’s 1972 report on the two-season dig that he led, states that the dolmen’s orientation is 90° – due east. This would make it a rarity among the dozens of megalithic tombs of the region. The consensus among all other archaeologists who study dolmens, is that ‘orientation’ refers to the foot or entrance of the dolmen – not, as Ambert implies, where the headstone lies. My reading indicates 260°, or W S-W. It would seem there is a 10° error on my part, or his – I would like this settled by a third party at some point.

Above is the view from the foot. The tomb appears to be constructed in two sections : the inner cell of just over two metres, and an outer ‘couloir’ or anti-chamber of just under two metres. It is just over one metre wide, and lies in a tumulus measuring about ten metres across.

Ambert found very little in the way of grave-goods remaining : just one very small ‘perle’ made of rolled bronze sheet, and one small metallic disc, plus various shards of pottery. Of human remains he found 223 teeth, 110 finger-bones and some long bones.

This it seems was a big disappointment : his team had gone to great trouble, hauling up a 40 kilo piece of lifting-gear to remove the capstone that had collapsed into the tomb. They had hoped to find considerably more under this protective covering – but evidently someone had got in first and their digging had undermined one side orthostat, causing the ‘table’ subsequently to fall in to the excavation.

The capstone remains intact, to the north side :

It is just visible in the undergrowth. I cleared some of the box away, to get a better idea of its shape :

And then swept away the leaves on top :


The table is now revealed as an impressively large slab, measuring 1.60 m. x 1.15 m. by Ambert’s account. The surface is highly indented – which may be the result of erosion, or it may be that this is the underside ; certainly the other side looks flatter. So did Ambert’s team ‘flip’ the stone over as they lifted it?

But much more importantly – why did they not replace the capstone at the end of the dig? It may have been lack of time, with three sites to examine in two summers. They may have been short-handed – again one team spread over three digs. Lack of funds could have been a factor, or an unwillingness to haul the lifting-gear back up the hill.

Or it could be that their focus was on other things : Ambert was developing a theory based on an index or ratio between length of inner cell and outer entrance zone. Simultaneously Jean Guilaine, the region’s other great archaeologist, was working on ratios of width – both men aiming to bring greater precision to our understanding of the architecture of dolmens, and enable a clearer picture of the changing prehistoric cultures – and thus to settle the question of external influence versus local evolution: that is, did different funerary rites arrive with different peoples, or did they occur through exchange and assimilation?

Getting access to the tomb’s contents was equally important – cultural artifacts enabled a more accurate dating of the construction, and the timespan of its use. For both these reasons the Centre de recherche et documentation du Minervois helped Ambert’s efforts with the removal of the capstone.

The aim of all concerned therefore, was to add to the sum total of knowledge. Low down on their list of priorities, it seems, was the general public to whom this patrimoine belonged. Here was a good opportunity to renovate a dolmen – a rare enough occasion, when most tombs lack any intact capstone. The equipment was available, the experience was there, the tomb was in good structural order, and it lay not that far from a track. Was thought given to other people’s appreciation of the area’s megalithic wealth?

[The coordinates will be available to members of la Société d’Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, in Carcassonne. Or you can contact me for a guided visit.]

Posted June 7, 2010 by Richard Williams

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