Lou Cayla hillfort, habitat and necropoli at Mailhac   Leave a comment


A view of Lou Cayla, showing the heaps of white stones that are the remains of ‘le vieux village ‘. It is a scruffy and undistinguished hill, like so many in the region and without sheep or goats to graze the undergrowth, it is impossible to convey the layout of the hillfort settlement.

Mailhac – in the north-eastern quarter of our departement de l’Aude – lies in that archaeologically rich and fascinating part called the Minervois. This territory forms an historic crossroad – between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic – and it has favored the settlement of peoples since the Neolithic era.
But in archaeology it is a rare occurance that on the same site one can explore both the habitats and the necropoli of a period that lasted nearly one thousand years.


A plan of the number digs of the old village on the plateau of Lou Cayla.

Mailhac was, since the Neolithic period (around 4 500 BC.), an important site of the Minervois area.
Around 900 BC. AD, a community settled on one of the hills (now called Lou Cayla), above the modern-day village ( – itself many centuries old).

The ‘ancien village ‘, composed of small houses that occupied the entire plateau on top of Lou Caylar, was probably protected by a stone and earth rampart. The dwellings were circular and made of wood and cob (a mixture of earth and straw), with beaten earth floors and a central fireplace.


An arial photo of the old village, taken in 1965, when goats and sheep still grazed the plateau clear of garrigue.
The oppidum or hillfort or fortified village then underwent a hiatus of about a century at the beginning of the First Age of Iron, in the eighth century BC.

The village then re-located below, in the plain, at a place called Le Traversant (The Crossing), south of Lou Cayla. Its overall situation was favorable to economic development and crafts : on the one hand through the protection from the strong winds from the north-west  (le “Cers”), and partly thanks to the proximity of two rivers, the Répudre to the west and the stream of Saint-Jean de Cas, to the east. The landscape reliefs remain substantially identical to those that existed back then.


The village covered, in the light of recent research, an area estimated at between 7 and 8 hectares and almost certainly had a defensive system consisting of a ditch with raised earthworks, perhaps supplemented by a palisade.
In addition to houses, it included barns, granaries, courtyards and thoroughfares. The houses were rectangular and absidial, sometimes even bi-absidial. Some of these structures covered 50 square metres, but most were smaller, with a floor area of 30 m2 (approximately 4 x 8 m).

Outdoor spaces were occupied by domesticated animals: cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry that were enclosed and protected by the ditch that surrounded the whole village.

The general architecture of the houses is still not fully understood  because the materials in it were perishable (wood, earth, straw), leaving few traces in the soil – but archaeologists can reliably assume that walls of cob would have been supported by a wooden frame consisting of poles, spaced from each other about 1 m / 1,50 m, whose stone pilings have been found in place.

Daily activities were organized around a central hearth: cooking, milling, weaving. The storage and conservation of food and raw materials are in large ceramic vases and basketry placed in communal store-rooms and in silos (specially arranged pits in the ground) which were often reused as landfills (landfill). These stores were used collectively by the entire population who withdrew food according to need : cereals, salt, meat or dried or smoked fish, etc..


Craft activities, such as the manufacture of objects in bronze or iron, pottery, and basketry probably were developed in areas within the village, in separate temporary structures. Pottery-works of this epoch have been discovered a short distance from the village, at Camberaud, on the smaller more seasonal stream of St-Jean de Cap, and there are more recent remains of clay-works at Les Tuileries on the banks of Le Répudre.

Food, and cooking, which was mostly based around stews and roasts, was provided by livestock; agriculture (cereals such as wheat, barley or millet); hunting (wild boar, deer, rabbits, small birds); fishing, and gathering.

The necropolis of Mailhac at the end of the Bronze Age is located in the shallow Mailhac basin, to the south and below the habitat of the same chronological period (le Cayla and Le Traversant).


The view from the old village, with the base of Le Moulin to the left, and the bassin showing a glimpse of water in the stand of trees, centre.

The burial ground lies about 600 m from the earliest habitations and as far as current research shows, was not specifically separated from the ancient village – that is, no area was particularly bounded or closed in). Its maximum extension covers about 2 hectares.

Currently, 400 tombs have been excavated by archaeologists, and they believe that a further 1000 remains from this period still lie buried there – under present-day vineyards.


The tombs of the Mailhac necropolis, at the end of the Bronze Age, are circular: the vases are deposited in a pit (called the loculus) of 60 cm in diameter and 30 to 40 cm deep.
The tomb, after the filing of vases and offerings, is closed by a slab of stone or a log rings. To protect it and make a visible surface marker, the tombs were covered with of a pile of stones called the tumulus or mound.
There is no rigorous plan within the necropolis (no streets, no roads), but the graves are so arranged as to allow passage between them. Archeologists have identified the graves of the end of the Bronze Age in various groupings: quite possibly family units. In these groups, there are all ages, from children to adults, with the exception of newborns. The tombs contain 1 to 6 vessels with an average of 3 vases.
The vase containing the burnt bones of the deceased (called the ossuary or  cinerary vase) might be covered individually with a stone or some other vessel  acting as a cover.
Often discovered in the grave is a small cup that is identified as the personal drinking cup of the deceased. Other vases contained food offerings (cereals, meat and drink). In the case of meat offerings, most of the pieces of meat are goat, sheep or pork – but sometimes there are offerings of beef or venison that accompany some male individuals.

The practice of burning makes it impossible to determine the sex of the deceased – burnt bones being reduced to fragments or distorted by fire, and without any high-quality organic matter (no DNA, for example). However, detailed study of the tombs has enabled archaeologists to distinguish the tombs of women and those of men, with accompanying furniture (metal items).


Thus, it is assumed that if a tomb contains a bracelet, a ring or a bronze hair-clasp, it is a feminine subject. If the tomb contains a razor and / or tweezers, it’s probably a male grave. In the case of pins, these elements are found equally among women and men. These bronze objects, and the cup, were generally placed on bones burned in the cinerary vase.
If the full body of the deceased is burned, these protohistoric people did not place all the bones in the tomb – a certain amount of bones was sometimes scattered inside the loculus.
Newborns (from pre-term babies up to the age of 6 months), were accorded a separate treatment. They were not incinerated, and are usually found buried in houses, especially against the walls (including from the sixth century BC).
– these graves are still poorly understood, though feminist historians are proposing ideas that deal with a separate and domestic history of these times.

Posted November 17, 2008 by MH

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