Rocque Hillfort, Thézan   Leave a comment

When Mme. de Lachapelle reported what she had discovered in the hills above her domaine at St. Esteve, near Thézan, she can have had little to compare it to. It is not surprising that she likened it to a graveyard belonging to giants or prehistoric animals:

This is how her report appeared first, in a 1919 Supplément to Germain Sicard’s ‘Dictionnaire‘. His addition of {sic} shows that he did not take the discovery very seriously. Certainly not enough to go up there to examine it. But Madame was not ‘imagining things’ – her description was simply inaccurate or rather, inexpert.

What she had seen – and what Sicard failed to follow up – was neither a cromlech nor a ossuary: it was a Chalcolithic/Bronze age ‘enceinte fortifiée‘, a defensive hillfort. There are possibly only three of this type that I know of in the Minervois/Corbières hills – and one of them is on the top of the hill above our village. The two others are: Cros, above Caulnes; and Minerve-la-Vieille. Without experience of a previously-authenticated example to aid one, it is unlikely that many people would recognize it. It looks like a long sweeping bank of rubble:

Above shows the wall rising towards the eastern rim.

Another term for these fortified ’emergency encampments’ is ‘un épéron barré‘ or promontary fort. In most cases there is a stretch of cliff that protects from two or three points of the compass, while the fourth is defended by a thick crude stone wall, usually topped by a wooden palissade. This particular fort stands on a cliff 70 metres high, but is not on an actual promontary: its shape is therefore semi-circular.

There is evidence of expert excavation, and several shallow surface ‘digs’ :

Here the scattered stones have been cleared away, revealing the original wall resting on bare earth. Similar work can be seen on the Roc Gris hillfort. The width would have been about 2-3 metres. Below is another view:

The length of the entire wall is 120 metres which would enclose 2500 sq. m. (a quarter of an hectare, or just over half an acre). The Roc Gris hillfort (‘Camp de Roland’ is its folklore name) above our village is 180 m. long. Both face north – that is, their cliff-side is to the east or south-east, while the habitable area slopes away to the north and N-W, exposing them to the strong cold Tramontane winds. They both lack a supply of water, and thus it has been proposed that such places were for temporary use, in emergencies. Very few artifacts have been found within ‘our fort’, and only a few internal walls that may have been store-rooms or huts – which further supports the theory that they were only briefly occupied.

Below can be seen a shallow excavation in the top of the wall:

Certainly up until 1929 there had been no ‘official’ visit to the site. But it would appear that either local people who knew of its existence – or others from the region who had read Sicard’s report in the Bulletin de SESA, or le Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française in Paris (neither publicly available) – have made these excavations, but never reported them.

The site holds another great surprise: what looked at first sight to be a narrow break or entrance through the wall, on closer inspection seems to closely resemble a dolmen.

For a gateway into the enclosure it is very narrow – 80 centimetres wide. The photo shows its orientation: 130° or S-E. Its length is 4/5 metres.

The orthostats above are both about 1 m. high by 2 m. long and most significantly they are ‘doubled’ or ‘interleaved’ in a way that is frequently seen in the dolmens of our region. Lacking are both the headstone (chevet), and capstone (table). It may be significant also that the hillfort at Roc Gris also has a dolmen within metres of the wall – though not part of it.

What is needed now is the scrutiny of an archaeologist. There are a great many questions thrown up by this highly unusual situation: one is the possibility that the dolmen and its tumulus was built first, in the Neolithic period, and subsequently reused and incorporated into the fort’s wall. Or the passage is simply that: no passage-grave, merely a narrow entrance that could allow the inhabitants and a few smaller animals to gain sanctuary, then be quickly blocked and barricaded.

The video gives a clearer picture of the site:

Posted January 16, 2011 by MH

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