The archaeological story of the dolmens of La Matte (or la Planette – or Planete, the official ‘lieu-dit‘ as it appears on the land-register) begins with Germain Sicard’s report and map of his visit in 1891. Two years later Jean Miquel, of Barroubio, also explored the plateau and found one more dolmen that Sicard had missed.
The story ends in the late 1952, when le docteur Jean Arnal published his collected reports : ‘Excursions sur les Causses de Minerve’. Here he recounts how, during the summer of 1947 (World War 2 barely finished) he covered 250 kilometres by car across all the limestone uplands around Minerve. He explored le Causse de Siran, or St. Julien, the causses de Minerve, les dolmens des Lacs and the nécropolis de Bois-Bas.
For the 7 kilometre walk around the plateau de la Matte, he had as guides a father-and-son team of truffle-hunters, MMrs. Agussol. As expert companions he brought Odette and Jean Taffanel, and Madeleine Cavalier and Louis Jeanjean. The Taffanels – a brilliant autodidact brother and sister team – had made their name locally and nationally by discovering a Neolithic/Bronze age/Iron age complex above their village of Mailhac.
Together they brought the total of tombs to 16. It was an impressive achievement – marred only by the lack of a detailed map, or any coordinates. His textual descriptions seem accurate – until one tries to follow them. An initial gross error occurs when he lists his discoveries : ‘en allant d’est en ouest’ – when in fact he means the opposite: from west to east.
His naming is also less than helpful: his two ‘dolmens de l’Oppidum’ are nowhere near the so-called ‘oppidum’ – they are half a kilometre to the south-east, above the ancient manganese mine. Other names for dolmens seem picked from a hat: ‘le dolmen de la vallée du Cros’ is high up on the top of the plateau and over half a kilometre south-east of the valley and the Cros stream.
Arnal’s report is at pains to accord earlier researchers due respect, while asserting the progress that archaeological studies have achieved – and bemoaning the damage done to the historical record by the incompetencies of others. He remarks on the accelerated damage in the intervening decades: heedless treasure-hunters are castigated, and one local man is named : ‘un docteur Delmas, de Rieux, aurait vidé quelques sepulchres’. A veritable grave-robber! He later describes the situation thus: ‘la destruction sur le plateau de la Matte a été accélérée au début de notre sciècle par des fouilles intempestives pratiquées par des collectionneurs qui sacrifiaient l’architecture à la recherche de belles pièces’.
Jean Arnal is held in the highest respect for his work in the region – but his exemplary character is not mirrored in his style of writing. It is already heading in the direction of ‘scientist-speak’. To convey the impact of this extraordinary place, he falls back on the words of Germain Sicard, written 60 years before : ” C’est un vaste champ de calcaire bouleversé, un chaos en miniature, une ancienne plateforme brisée par quelque convulsion du sol…”
His photos however, do manage (despite the poor reproduction) to convey its earlier state of barren abandonment – and its flatness: it is indeed a planeto.
This view of Costelonge 1 extends for many hundreds of metres – before dropping away abruptly – there is nothing growing taller than knee-high. Nowadays evergreen oak and box and scrub-pine crowd the scene – the sheep and goats and wood-gatherers are all long gone. The archaeologists too seem to have lost interest in the place and would seem content to let it all fall from memory. Their work and their careers were funded by taxpayers’ money, but they none of them seem to consider that they owe anything much back to us, in the way of information, explanation – or even simple direction. Did they not think that we too would want to know more about our ancestors – and perhaps visit their extraordinary tombs?
Were it not for researchers like Bruno Marc, and Joel ‘un modeste chercheur‘, and myself – this extraordinary place would disappear completely from public conciousness, overwhelmed by undergrowth and ignorance.
My own account and photos of these dolmens will appear, over the following weeks, in their own Pages.
Childhood interests can ignite life-long passions. For Jean Miquel de Barroubio, in the 1860’s, his long walk to and from school began a distinguished career as collector and researcher of the complex geology of our region. For Germain Sicard, at the same time, the hill above his family ‘domaine’ at Les Rivières, Félines-Minervois, must have been a similar playground, full of archaeologic wonders.
From the Bronze age hillfort of Le Cros at the western end, to the mediaeval castle of Ventajou at the east, the plateau of La Planette – which extends over an area of 400 hectares (3 km long by 1 km wide) – is filled with fascinating stone structures : 16 megalithic tombs, two burial mounds, ancient mines, marble quarries, a stone fort and a standing stone. It is also called La Matte, after an impressively restored farm on its southern lip.
Sicard reported on his finds, in a bulletin of S.E.S.A. in 1896. He had gone up there in 1891 with his good friend Capitaine Savin, who was more interested in the ‘étrange construction’ in the middle of the plateau:
Guy Rancoule, senior departmental archaeologist specialising in the Iron age, confirmed to me recently that this was indeed a military stronghold – but of much later construction. It’s strange – but it’s not an oppidum.
In the same bulletin, Sicard published his map of this extraordinary place:
It was this map, plus the report written by le Docteur Arnal in 1948 ‘Excursion sur les causses de Minerve’ that has lead me a merry chase. Over many visits I have only managed to find two of the dolmens, the one menhir, and the ‘oppidum’.
Bruno Marc has done much better: he found most of them back in 1996. Recently he has included a few scanned photos of some of them, on his site.
But then a week ago – out of the blue – I received a comment here on this site, and then detailed emails from another dolmen-hunter: Joel. And it was Joel and his precise GPS coordiates that enabled me to visit six dolmens up there, this last weekend – all in one day. I appreciate how many hours and days of laborious searching were needed. Joel’s discovery of these previously imprecisely-located sites has impressed me immensely – and when you go up there you too will realise how difficult it is to find anything in this extraordinarily-jumbled landscape.
Equally chaotic is the naming and numbering of each tomb. Sicard, Miquel, Arnal and Bruno have all given different names to the scattered dolmens. With GPS and by working strictly from West to East I am proposing a definitive placement that will be presented to la Société d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’ Aude, as part of the first complete geolocalised Inventory of the megaliths of the Aude.
Over the next few weeks, each of the six dolmens I visited will be given their individual Page. And in the meantime, I might just get back up there to find all the others.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
My ‘discovery’ of a ‘new’ Bronze Age site is being taken seriously. But without actual, dated finds – this is still provisional.
The strict rule to follow – if you should be so lucky as to find ‘une vestige néolithique‘ – is first to ‘informe la Mairie de la commune‘. I have therefore broken Rule 1, because I contacted the vice-president of S.E.S.A. first. Michel Prun is also the archivist and ‘bibliothéquaire‘ of this learnéd Society, and he has provided great help and encouragement to me over the last three years.
He immediately told one of our senior archaeologists, Guy Rancoule, because this period – Bronze Final/Age de Fer – has been Rancoule’s area of expertise for forty years. And so we met last Wednesday afternoon – the deep expert and the shallow amateur – and he accepted (subject to onsite validation) that this did indeed look like an ‘épéron barré‘. Any information concerning a site that looked like an oppidum or a hillfort would have been sent to him – yet he had never heard of this place.
The ‘dolmen’ in the middle of the wall would, he thought, require more study. The theory that it pre-dated the ‘enceinte fortifiée’ was quite possible too. We need to find datable artifacts to be certain.
We also agreed on the questionable status of some of our local ‘menhirs’: he considers that many are territorial markers, but also that it is likely that there is ‘pas de coupure’ – no break – in the local demarcation of neolithic tribal land and its continuation into present times.
The question of which Mairie to inform was settled at the very top of the ridge, close to the hillfort. The marker-stone or ‘borne‘ has been carefully incised :
This shows the exact demarcation angles between the communes of Thézan and St Andre-de-Roquelongue. And thus it shows that the prehistoric site does not belong to Thézan, as Germain Sicard stated. Which may prove significant, because this site is just inside the boundary of the newly accredited Parc Naturel Régional Narbonnais. The ownership of a heretofore unknown neolithic site could be important for its conservation and presentation.
A few hundred metres down the ridge is another important marker-stone: la borne des Trois Seigneurs. here three communes needed clear demarcation – but it’s just mediaeval history to me, and must wait for another day.
Google however furnishes the researcher with this other borne des Trois Seigneurs, from another part of France entirely:
Again, the incised angles are clear, on top of the cylindrical stone – despite the poor quality of reproduction.
Sicard never ventured up onto this most inaccessible plateau, and never saw these bornes, and never saw the hillfort that so astonished Mme. de Lachapelle in 1919.
But he did trek up, in August 1904, to the highest point of our Montagnes Noires – Le Pic de Nore. And there he reported a little known and rarely-mentioned standing-stone: le menhir de Nouret:
That’s Sue and me trying to get the measure of it. My Mary was there too, as were two elderly walkers who had heard of it. Interesting – it does not feature on any guide to the megaliths of the region. It is more than a simple ‘borne‘.
More photos and info on the Nouret Menhir Page.
In 1919 Germain Sicard added a supplement to his Inventaire of 1900 :
His energy and enthusiasm for archaeology had reached the furthest corners of the département, and in this publication he lists all the reports received by S.E.S.A. in the intervening years. He repeated the exercise in 1926: this final ‘Essai sur les Monuments Mégalithiques du département de l’ Aude‘ was subsequently published in the annals of la Société Préhistorique Française in 1929.
There were of course some errors of identification by correspondants, that Sicard never visited nor corrected. His reputation has suffered as a result of these. With such a wide variety of construction types and no standard textbooks on the dolmens of France, it was inevitable that a few faux-dolmens entered his list. Over-enthusiatic members reported one at Mancès, above Cassagnoles. It featured, as recently as last year, in Quid’s entry for the commune. I went there myself – and was directed to it by a farmer’s wife who knew it well: but it was simply a balanced jumble of stones, a glacial erratic or the result of erosion.
Likewise I fear that at least two of Madame Landriq’s ‘finds’ were similar accidental arrangements. Yet another that is included in his Inventory, near Tourouzelle, is the result of a collapsed strata of rock that has tumbled against others down the slope.
In my efforts to compile an up-to-date inventory, I have been working my way through all available lists of megalithic sites. But there was one report that I repeatedly overlooked. It concerned a ‘cromlech’ or at least a circular arrangement of large stones near Thézan:
Mme. de Lachapelle’s vivid impressions of a vaste boneyard of giants or prehistoric animals, evidently intrigued Germain Sicard, for he includes it in both the 1919 and this, the 1929 Inventoire. But it is equally evident that he did not take her seriously enough to look into the matter.
Madame was not imagining things – she just did not realise what she was looking at. It was not a cromlech nor a boneyard: it is a Bronze Age ‘enceinte fortifiée’ – a defensive hillfort. And within the wall-structure is what appears to be a dolmen.
It has gone unremarked as far as I can tell, for almost a century: that is, it does not appear on any survey or list. It has been searched however, for a section of the original wall has been revealed, and other shallow holes excavated. Someone in the region knows exactly what it is – but has not notified the authorities.
I have sent in my report to S.E.S.A. so that my ‘discovery’ be a matter of record.
More information plus photos and video appear on the Roque Hillfort Page.
As early as 1900, Germain Sicard (founder-member of la Société d’ Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude) began to compile an inventory of the prehistoric sites in the département. In 1895 Jean Miquel de Barroubio had published his small volume ‘Un Essai sur l’Arrondissement de St. Pons’. These two early writings formed the starting point for most of the subsequent searches by our regional archaeologists.
I nearly bought a copy of Miquel’s Essai in Montolieu a few weeks ago – but couldn’t justify its price (a reasonable €60) to Mary, or myself. The chapter on the megaliths of the Minervois is short, and the descriptions too vague to be of any practical help. And I was reminded of how young the study of dolmens was: Miquel still referred to them as ‘celtique’ and ‘druidique‘.
In that same year Abbé Boudet privately published his preposterous book ‘La Vrai Langue Celtique et Le Cromleck de Rennes-les-Bains‘. He evidently hoped to make his name as a ‘Man of Letters’, joining La Société des Arts et Sciences de Carcassonne at this time, and then the Société Linguistique de Paris. He even sent a copy to the British Royal Court. It’s not surprising to me – a graduate in Anglo-Saxon and Old English, and Master in English Literature – that this so-called ‘érudite’ was little more than a clever schoolboy, obsessed with words and language. It looks more than likely that at least one priest, directed by Edmond Boudet the lawyer, subverted the wills of several dying patients who had come to Rennes as a last resort.
At this point Occam’s Razor should be applied: “the simplest explanation is more likely the correct one”. All attempts to put an occult gloss on what are probably just banal criminalities – reflect more on the pervasive gullibility of a badly-educated public.
This petty story of pseudo-science and pulp-fiction fantasy has spread down the years: through the appallingly written garbage of Dan Brown and Kate Mosse. The semi-educated of each generation have become gullible consumers of half-digested history.
The rationalists and scientists of ‘La Société Scientifique de l’ Aude’ have tried to counter the swelling tide of ignorance and stupidity over a period of years. Sicard himself – by then President of Carcassonne’s archaeological society and about to become the vice-president of la Société Francaise de l’Archaeologie – felt the need to visit Rennes-le-Chateau in 1927 to settle the matter:
[Note sur les Croix Rupestres des Corbières. G. Sicard. Bulletin S.E.S.A. 1928]
He closes his essay in no uncertain terms, berating Boudet for his vague and arbitrary etymologies, his over-heated imagination, his fantasising tendencies and his utter lack of understanding of this ‘new science’:
His politeness barely conceals his contempt for Boudet’s ignorant assertions. Forty years later another attempt at dispersing the fog of fantasy was deemed necessary. Guy Rancoule’s ‘Note sur une tête sculptée’ ( Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude. 1969) states in clear terms the lack of scientific basis of Abbé Boudet’s fantasies:
“ses conclusions de linguiste celtisant (comme l’on l’entendait il y a un siècle) sont malheureusement empreinte de la plus haute fantaisie, on peut s’en convaincre aisément en parcourant son ouvrage. Ses attributions à des civilisations pré ou proto-historiques de “menhirs, dolmens, cromlechs” décrits et portés sur une carte par ailleurs géographiquement exacte, ne sont pas fondées. Nous avons pu constater qu’il s’agit dans tous les cas de phénomènes d’érosion sur une barre rocheuse naturelle.”
The fact that Boudet’s linguistic theories fell on deaf ears in and Paris and London; the fact that his ‘discovery’ of megaliths in mystical alignments was ridiculed by archaeologists, and that the book was pulped for lack of sales or interest; the probability that the money that flooded in to these corrupt priests was obtained by venal lawyers altering wills; the fact that one local priest was murdered and another empeached for their knowledge of the embezzlements – none of this will stop the under-educated from believing that ‘They’ – the authorities, the powers-that-be, the schoolteachers, the universities – ‘They’ are all wrong. And that a little club of Believers is right.
Nearly a third of Britons believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, according to a new survey by the Bible Society and Christian Research. Time magazine’s poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans believe in angels.
“When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
And I – along with thousands of others – firmly believed that was G.K. Chesterton’s most famous quote. Until today, when I discovered he never said those words. That’s fine with me – I appreciate the research of others.
Now : I believe this dank weather will change next week – so I’ll put off my dolmen-hunting ’til then. If the forecast changes, I’ll believe that too – and my plans will change with it. It would appear that I give a different weight to the word ‘belief’.
The actual source of Chesterton’s ‘Famous Quote’ is an essay by a Belgian professor who taught in London. He was discussing Chesterton’s 1923 story ‘The Oracle of the Dog’ : he is quoting Father Brown, one of Chesterton’s favourite characters –
‘”It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: “And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.” [p. 211, The Laughing Prophet – 1937 : a study of Chesterton by Emile Cammaerts].
Chesterton, a committed Christian, was deploring, through his character Father Brown, the ‘modern thought’ that was flooding through British society after the Great War. In the wake of that catastrophe, he saw both loss of Faith, and belief in anything.
So consider this: Of the three people waiting in the checkout-line behind you, one believes that an invisible social-worker is hovering over their shoulder. One in every three patients about to go into surgery believes an unseen guardian with gossamer wings is floating above their bed.
The bank employees processing your money? A majority of the clerks there think they have an incorporeal vigilante minding them. Most of the people assembling your new car on the factory-line have a spectral supervisor guiding them. Two in every three motorists speeding through the rush-hour traffic travels with a bodiless bodyguard to protect them.
There may be sat-nav in the car on the driveway, but there are still fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Last year I lost a significant portion of my memory. Fortunately it turned up in an old briefcase last week, and I was delighted to slot it back into its USB port and review some of the dolmens and menhirs I had researched that autumn.
And since the ‘theme’ at the moment seems to be standing-stones, it would be appropriate to complete the little series of menhirs that cluster around the north-western corner of the Aude, with two reports: the Azérou stone sited 1.5 km east of Saissac, and the menhir de Picarel, 2 km. to the northwest.
The situation at both these sites is more complicated than usual: they were, or are, not single stones – but part of an alignment or cromlech.
Germain Sicard’s Essai sur les mégalithes de l’Aude of 1929 reports the finding of a number of lesser stones grouped around the one we see standing. I had read this, but not brought his account with me that day – nevertheless I managed to find some stones closeby.
Back home I discovered a much more detailed document on the site. A regional archaeologist, Jean Guilaine, had written about ‘Le Complexe Mégalithique de l’Azérou’ – in conjunction with a book called ‘Aude des Origines’ – a synthesis of prehistoric research compiled by the leading archaeologists of our area.
On the Azérou cromlech Page I offer a partial translation and synopsis, plus my own account and photos.
On the Picarel menhir Page there’s a précis of the work by another local archaeologist, Jean Vaquer – research which presents a new view of this site, plus other info & photos.