The Ringfort at Le Moural
For the first time, one of the six enclosure-settlements recently identified in the Aude river valley that features wide ditches has been excavated extensively. The excavation, lasting five years, has revealed a site occupied continuously for nearly 1000 years, and features a unique example of Neolithic architecture in Southern France. The nature of the items found in the enclosure also calls into question some claims about the Campaniform/early Bell-Beaker culture.
Photo: J. Vaquer
Aerial surveys, combined with several rescue-interventions undertaken in Western Languedoc over the last twenty years, have identified an original type of wide-ditch enclosure. Its circular structure has been established with six survey digs. With a diameter ranging from 47 metres to 110 metres, these structures feature a gateway marked by a wide break in the ditch. The surveys made in Villeneuve-Tolosane (Haute-Garonne), Roc-d’en-Gabit, Carcassonne (Aude) and Carsac-Mayrevielle, Carcassonne (Aude) have permitted these structures to be dated from the late Neolithic (start of the third millennium BCE).
Sketch: J. Vaquer
However, these interventions have been limited because of their location in housing estates or vineyards, and the status of these sites could not until now, be precisely defined. The discovery of a strong earthwork bank, combined with a ditch, in Villeneuve-Tolosane (Haute-Garonne) encouraged the interpretation that these were defensive habitats.
But other criteria – the two concentric earthwork rings at Carsac, the broken remains of tombs found at this site and at Roc-d’en-Gabit, the absence of any discernable habitations inside the enclosure – might suggest possible morphological similarities with British henges and that these could be ceremonial edifices or places of residence of an elite exercising powers of theocratic origin.
The opportunity to fully identify one of these sites and to search extensively came in 1993 when aerial prospecting revealed the site of Mourral-Millegrand at Trèbes (Aude). This site, in the middle of a commercial quarry, was studied as part of a rescue/preventive programme. The excavations took place between 1994 and 1999, for two months every summer, with the assistance of a hundred volunteers, students and five doctoral students. Further excavations will start on the site of Roc-d’en-Gabit – also threatened by the workings of a quarry.
Aerial view of quarry at top, ringfort at bottom [cropped] – Geoportail.fr
A building thirty metres long
The site, located on a hilltop overlooking the Aude river valley, has not been cultivated since 1940. It is formed from an old alluvial terrace that had suffered little erosion.These conditions have resulted in good conservation and have facilitated the identification of the elements within the site.
The enclosure consists of an earthwork bank measuring 66 metres in diameter and a palisade foundation which doubles the ditch at a distance of 4 metres inside. The main entrance on the eastern side was marked by a gap of 7 m and a similar opening in the palissade of 2 m wide – this eastern entrance was originally wider but it was reduced to a simple postern during the occupation of the site. The many surveys conducted in the enclosure reveal that the filling came mostly from inside the enclosure suggesting that the rubble in the ditch between formed a bank of earth on the inside slope. Traces of poles and bracing holes observed in the palissade show that it consisted of logs set close together, whose average diameter was 20 cm. and with more massive pillars on both sides of the two gateways.
Digital simulation: Patrick Pérez et Frédéric Lesueur
Inside, the remains of three buildings have been identified from preserved post-holes . The largest, to the north, must have measured nearly 30 m long and 9 m. wide. It is a building with two wings and a straight gable-end, and an axial entrance formed by two massive pillars. To the south, the second building has the same arrangement of entry that would form a portico supporting a high ridge beam. It is smaller with walls converging at the rear, which suggests a back wall probably in the apse form. The third building is built on to the latter and is represented by two post-holes.
Carbon-14 dating, obtained from the base of a charred axial post of the large building, shows that it is strictly contemporaneous with the first occupation of the site (late fourth millennium BCE) . This type of architecture with a wood frame and load-bearing walls is unique in the Neolithic era of Southern France, where very few examples are known, apart from the dry-stone houses of the Fontbouïsse culture in Le Gard, which are much smaller. The hypothesis that these were ceremonial buildings or the residences of a privileged elite can therefore be considered for the particularly large structures of Mourral-Millegrand.
The earthwork bank and palisade
The stratigraphic excavation of the contents of the ditch has revealed a great number of items that help define the various phases of occupation of the site. The oldest ash layers revealed many remnants of consumption, typical elements of the local Neolithic culture-groups : Saint-Pons type and early Vérazian, dating from the late fourth millennium BCE [-3332 à -2946]
The middle layers have revealed evidence of early Vérazian, dating from the beginning of the third millennium (2900 to 2638 BCE).
After a period of disuse, Campaniform/BellBeaker People reoccupied the site and left traces in the western part of the ditch, which was almost completely filled.
A rich deposit of items includes the classic elements of the Bell-Beaker style whose tradition marks a departure from previous local groups with reinforcements to hafts and flint arrow-flights, arrow-heads of the type found at the Palmela site in Portugal, arsenical copper, variscite beads (a green mineral resembling turquoise) and a large batch of ceramic fragments gathered together.
This group of items, which from their stratigraphic situation can be seen as dating from the same period, includes pieces from various sources: beakers decorated in the style of ‘All-over Decorated’ and ‘Cockleshell’ ( zonal decoration made with combs or quills, identical to those of Holland and Brittany. Some are, as in Sicily, enhanced with red paint).
It is particularly interesting to note that these decorated beakers are associated with the so-called ‘grave accessory ceramics’ that differ from the indigenous Vérazien style. Their presence suggests a cultural autonomy of these Beaker People from the former phase, and contradicts the theory that the first beakers were distributed as luxury products, prestige goods or funeral offerings in indigenous cultures.
In another sector, a small deposit, found in the top layer of filling, refers to a more recent phase of Beaker culture (incised decoration in the Pyrenean style). It marks the latest occupation of the site as 2300 BC.
The economic life (charred cereals and animal remains) is well documented, as well as trade and exchange (stone tools and items of adornment). The evidence of domestic life, found in the various layers, suggests that this was a defensive habitat occupied by an elite social group which did not itself produce everything that was consumed – as evinced by the absence of silos. The presence of human bones in the lowest layers of the ditch where they are mixed with abundant wildlife remains, and in the campaniform level, where they are associated with precious stone jewelery, posits the question of ritual or ceremonial activities on the site, particularly considering the existence of human remains within the enclosure. The magnitude of the effort required to build this enclosure and its tall buildings is not commensurate with what we see in the many small contemporaneous habitats that have been identified in the region. Enclosures of this type occurring along the Aude valley corridor every 5 to 7 km, indicate that there was a social hierarchy – which is also reflected in the types of burials of this period : modest graves, in conjunction with large megalithic monuments.
Simulation et modélisation architecturale et paysagère. Restitution d’habitat néolithiques.
Patrick Pérez et Frédéric Lesueur, Restitution du site du Mourral, in Jean Vaquer, « Le Mourral, (Trèbes, Aude) ; une enceinte annulaire du néolithique final », revue CNRS Info, été 2000, n° spécial Recherche et archéologies préventives.
Vaquer J. – Le Mourral, Trèbes (Aude), a fortified languedocian late neolithic site, reoccupied by Bell Beakers. In: The Bell Beakers « phenomenon», M. Benz and S. van Willigen ed, Actes du séminaire Das Clockenbecherphänomen, Freiburg 1997.
Nothing remains, eleven years on. The quarry has scraped the hilltop clear of all traces of this singular structure. I went there anyway – knowing there would be nothing to see but wanting simply to be there.
But I did not come away disappointed: nearby I saw this unmistakeable object – the base of a Greek or Roman amphora. And scattered around were further ceramic pieces.
I have carefully photographed the exact location, and noted their positions. I must now ask for some expert advice.
Most amphorae were produced with a pointed base to allow them to be stored in an upright position by being partly embedded in wet sand or soft ground. Being partly porous they would ‘wick’ moisture upwards, where it would evaporate and thus keep the contents cool. We have a modern terracotta wine-bottle cooler that works like this.
Amphorae varied greatly in height. The largest could stand as much as 1.5 m (5 ft) high, while some were under 30 cm (12 inches) high. Most were around 45 cm (18 inches) high. There was a significant degree of standardisation in some variants; the wine amphora held a standard measure of about 39 litres (41 quarts).
From the thickness of its body, the size of its base and its construction – the one I found could be one of the older and bigger ones.