Archive for the ‘bronze age’ Tag

Les dolmens de la Planete – part 2   2 comments

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.

Advertisements

Up on La Planette   Leave a comment

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.

Mégalithes Imaginaires   Leave a comment

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.

Old books,old stones   1 comment

We’re feeling the pinch: economic downturn, petrol-price upturn – it means we have to plan our trips out with care.

So we have waited for a bright clear day, and we hope to visit the big well-known menhir of our region at Malves, then on to the little unknown menhir at Guitard – and thence up the road to the neighbouring ‘Book Village’ of Montolieu (our little Hay-on-Wye).

We have a few mega-megaliths in the Aude; two of the longest passage-graves in southern Europe (Morrel das Fadas at Pépieux and Saint-Eugène at Laure), and one of the tallest menhirs (Counozouls). The standing-stone at Malves-en-Minervois is big at 5 metres, and has been well-photographed:

It is undeniably impressive. But it is mute. It is a relic of something, but it is not a ruin. Some find nodes of power in such stones, some find sexual atmospherics.

But while they may be battered or defaced – they still are not ‘ruins’ of anything: they just remain, standing mute, enigmatic.

Dolmens, on the other hand, are ruins. As burial places, they were purposeful – in a way that we can posit questions about symbolism and service, or hygiene and heirarchy; they are containers of us and our rotting remains. Standing stones do not contain any of our pitiable remanents or belongings. They simply hold meaning – to which we cannot gain access.

I tread around them all – big stones or small – with wariness. Aware that some may contain ‘big meanings’, while others are but small territorial markers. These lesser stones intrigue me as much as the big ones: they may demarcate neolithic territories. They certainly form part of modern-day France, since so many communal boundaries run through them. Did mediaeval France take its border-markers from those immuable objects in the landscape? Is much of France shaped by the land-claims of Neolithic clans?

The little ‘menhir de Guitard’ was shown to me by the elderly and aimiable occupier of the farm. He knows it as “la borne entre Guitard et ‘le petit Versailles'” – to him it has simply been the land-mark between two estates.

– – Or are these ‘red-indian totem-poles’ around which fertility ceremonies were practiced (in a time – the Bronze Age – when mortality rates were decimating the tribes)?

Or are they both? Were stones, large and small, used for a wide variety of purposes: geographical and ceremonial?

[More photos & info on the Malves menhir Page, and the Guitard menhir Page]

Addendum

It’s not often that a poem gets written about a menhir – let alone a little one like Guitard – and so I should not let pass the opportunity to introduce readers to this one, by Yves Le Pestipon, a fellow ‘mégalithomane‘. It appears on his group website called L’Astrée, and the poem is prefaced by an explanation ‘Pourquoi chercher des mégalithes’ – with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Bellongue dolmen, Fontjoncouse   Leave a comment

The last time I ventured into this inhospitable corner of the Corbières, I was lucky to escape with my life. I received a mild savaging from some local archaeologists – largely because I failed to condemn some English metal-detectorist who had struggled up onto an oppidum site and bagged a few roman artefacts. I was reminded that prehistory is not a ‘leisure activity’. The unregulated sale of metal-detectors in France would seem to contradict this.

Being pragmatic (not an easy thing to understand if you come from an essentially idealistic and theoretic culture) I did not bother to take sides on this insolvable problem. Nevertheless, I was roundly criticized for not pointing out to this criminal, that his actions were illegal. Consequently, my every movement is now being monitored by a special CNRS operative based in Montpellier.

The fact that French museums no longer have room for any more ‘roman remains’ and that they know quite enough about the bloody romans and their culture, does not stop French archaeologists getting upset at people digging up one or two more items. The love that the French archaeologist has for this militaristic and slave-driving invader, perplexes me. If they care so much – why don’t they go up there and search themselves.

‘Lack of state funds for a dig’ would be the reply. Lack of state interest is more likely: they have quite enough roman rubbish, and they don’t want or need any more. For hundreds of years the romans occupied, enslaved and dumped their detritus all over France – much like the Nazis would have liked to have done.

NB I received this comment about ‘finds’ around Durban. Make of it what you will:

“I know of people in France, working as a professional archaeologist, who report everyone they can spot searching with a metal-detector while using one themselves at night. Night-hawkers of the worst kind.
I on the other hand, when finding items of any historical value stop digging, report the location and work together with the local archaeologists. In the Corbieres that would be a team from Perpignan, not a local night-hawker (without pointing fingers).
The grave tomb on the Carla has been robbed many years ago, I was to believe somewhere in the 70′s by a local, so I was told. The bones, pottery and beads from necklaces and bracelets lie in a cardboardbox in the persons shed in Durban les Corbieres. I have asked this person for the box so it can be examinded, but he refuses to hand the box over, saying he owned the vineyards around Le Carla and the tomb was on his land. He was rather suprised I knew about the existance of the box.
Next time I am on vacation in the south of France, I will try again once more, as the person is very old now, and the last thing anybody wants is to see it end up on a garbage tip.”

This little corner of les Corbières – Coustouge/Fontjoncouse/Albas/Durban etc.  is evidently fiercely proud of its heritage, and wants to ‘hold onto it’.  It also wants to promote itself. So for example, on the unofficial site of Albas my blog is simultaneousely castigated for being ‘a friend of the metal-detectors’  – and praised for its wonderful dolmen photos.

I thought I would query this schizophrenic publisher about this – but he has (in the usual neurotically cautious french way) carefully made himself and all info about the site, completely anonymous and untraceable. Unlike me, I would like to remind you : I believe in Glasnost. You can phone me (0033468651420) and I’ll tell you that I drive an elderly car, have little in the bank worth stealing and am not interested in prehistoric artefacts.

What I have undertaken is an exhaustive inventory of the region’s prehistoric sites: something that has not been done for 30 years – and even then, not with any precise accuracy. So, for all querelous and irrascible old archaeologists like ‘syd’ : Please don’t waste your time and mine picking historical holes in my writing. I’m a geo-locator who finds inspiration in our earliest buildings. I like difficult walks and the ruins that they lead me to.

I don’t quite understand what’s going on with some of these local experts. Apparently there’s a ‘Centre de Recherches et Developpement Culturel‘ in the region, that was set up by Paulette Pauc some time back – but that no longer seems active, at least on the Web. There was supposed to be a museum of prehistory in one of these villages – but it has shrunk to a tray of artifacts in some Mairie.

Villages that value their ‘patrimoine‘ need to be actively looking into their own history and putting it up on the Web, if they want to engage the interest of young enquiring minds – or old amateurs like me. The interesting stuff that Pauline Pauc has been doing can been seen here. It’s fascinating, hands-on history.

Meanwhile, unremarked by any writer or historian or local expert  – and right in the middle of their community – is their own little megalithic tomb. No-one has recorded any information about it: Bruno Marc (our ‘expert’) has never heard of it. However, I’m sure he will soon be sending me one of his emails, claiming that he knew about it, years ago. Just never mentioned it.

The only mention of it is in Michel Barbaza’s Inventoire, of 1979. Jean Guilaine and Yves Solier searched it, but there was nothing left whatsoever, after several millennia of ransacking.

It’s an easy walk, and on a bright clear day, it’s an uplifting site – with views of peaks and hills that would inspire one to go look for more. It also has a curious construction – and that would lead you to ask some questions.

More photos – but precious little info – on the Bellongue dolmen Page.

le Clot de l’Oste dolmen – found in a thicket of words   Leave a comment

Inaccuracy and confusion have surrounded this megalithic site from the beginning.
In 1897 the schoolmaster at Bouisse, Jean-Baptiste Bonis, discovered the dolmen while out searching for prehistoric implements. The tomb had already been ransacked and his search turned up only a few items: a bronze ring, a large jaw-bone and some bone fragments. The jaw however held ‘fort belles dents bien conservées’. Le Dr Bascou de Bouisse  thought the jawbone belonged to a giant – “un colosse” – and arranged for it to be buried in the cemetery.
Germain Sicard (one of the leading amateur prehistorians of the region) then heard about it from another member of la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, l’Abbé Ancé. And it was here – between the two men – that the confusion begins. First: that Abbé Ancé called it  by its ‘country name’ – ‘peiro dreito‘, and second: that he spelt it with an H. Sicard included it in his report L’Aude Préhistorique (Bulletin de la Soc. d’Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude, t. XI, 1900) and again in the more comprehensive Essai sur les Monuments mégalithiques du département de l’Aude (Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1929 ) where it appears thus:

Now – there’s a lot going wrong in these three sentences. Leaving aside the initial gross error of inserting ‘menhir’ instead of ‘colline’ – we come to the first major inaccuracy: there is no place named ‘Peiro Dreito’ on any map of  the commune. Secondly, he doesn’t allow that the term ‘peiro dreito’ can, in local parlance, be used for both dolmens and menhirs.

A ce propos notons que dans le Lot le toponyme Pierre Levée désigne les dolmens et non les menhirs. On peut également trouver les variations Peyro Lebado, Peyrelevade, Peyrelongue, ou même Peyrefi. Il est intéressant de remarquer que dans l’Aude aussi, l’allée couverte du Clot de l’Oste (commune de Bouïsse) était appelée Péïro Dreïto. (J Clottes. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1963)

Sicard’s second sentence is short and simple enough, if imprecise. The third leaps off into a wild, five-line speculation : asking us if the name itself doesn’t recall echoes of a battle, based on a latin interpretation, then speculating that the defeated were buried there – or – recollecting that he is supposed to be talking about a menhir (and not a burial-place) – that the site was where human sacrifices might have been performed, at the foot of this ‘idol’.

His latin is also inaccurate: there is no such word as ‘hostios’. There is however ‘hostias’ which is the plural accusative of the first declension feminine noun hostia/ae which does mean ‘sacrificial victim’. This extraordinary flight-of-fancy flutters feebly back to earth with the closing words :  “if we can, in fact, attribute this role to menhirs”.

What strikes me about this remarkable (and still influential) little entry is that he arbitrarily turns ‘oste’ into ‘hoste’, when the Occitan language has no letter H:

La Dictionnaire Languedocien-François (Pierre-Augustin Boissier, Abbé de Sauvages 1753)

and that he doesn’t attempt a translation of the word ‘clot’. He has some Latin, and that gives him Hostis = enemy. However, he ignores the word’s initial and primary meaning – ‘stranger’. With this sense we are getting closer to understanding the naming of this dolmen.

[History of Words. Merriam-Webster Inc.]

His final and fatal error was to presume that the word ‘clot’ meant an enclosed field. He assumed, as many other writers do, that it comes from the word ‘clos’: ‘Claus, Claux, Clausas, Clausis, Clauzis viennent de l’occitan et désigne un lieu clos, fermé, du latin CLAUSUM. À ne surtout pas confondre avec Clot, avec un “t” dont l’étymologie est différente.’

For this researcher it comes from a similar but different root : ‘Clot provient d’un terme pré-latin KLOTT, d’origine indéterminée, désignant un replat (sur un versant), un terrain plat,  voire en léger creux. C’est un mot occitan encore usité pour plat.’

That writer does not provide any sources for his interpretation, whereas I would cite again  La Dictionnaire Languedocien-François. It was the life-work of Pierre-Augustin Boissier, Abbé de Sauvages, begun in 1745 and first published in 1753 in one volume, then in 1785 in two volumes, and expanded in 1820 by his grand-nephew Baron d’Hombres-Firmas. Larousse described the dictionary thus : ‘Cet ouvrage témoigne de longues et laborieuses recherches. L’abbé de Sauvages n’a réellement rien négligé pour étudier à fond le patois de son pays ; il poussait la précaution jusqu’à toujours choisir ses servantes dans les villages des Cévennes où la tradition des vieux langages s’était le mieux conservé.’

For ‘clot’ it provides a choice : a ditch, a tomb, a cavity, a hollow.

and an earlier work confirms this:

Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue françoise, Volume 1 [Gilles Ménage 1650]

So there was Sicard, taking flight into a world of prehistoric warfare and sacrificial totem-poles, and leading everyone else astray for decades – while all along the place was simply called the Tomb of the Stranger.

The inaccuracy over the spelling and the confusion between dolmen and menhir continue to this day. The Wikipédia entry for the commune of Bouisse repeats the misspelling – it probably trusted  Bruno Marc’s website. But Marc is just copying Sicard 90 years later (neither of them having visited the place) – and that’s how ignorance continues down through the years – until someone stops it.

Now, half-way through this Comedy of Errors enters Bernard Dandine, the first to shed some scientific light on the place (while still getting the spelling wrong). He sent  ‘Une note sur le Dolmen du Clot de l’Hoste‘ to the Société préhistorique française (Bulletin  1954  Volume  51)  in which he describes being taken to the site by the ‘first’ man to find it – the now 80-year-old Jean-Baptiste Bonis. And thus he was able to confirm that it was indeed a dolmen.

There’s much more yet on this: more toponymy, etymology – even some dentistry – as well as photos and info, on the Clot de l’Oste dolmen Page, left.

Call in the archaeologists   Leave a comment

The good thing about being Proprietor, Publisher, and Principal Reporter on this site, is that when you rush in from an afternoon fighting the undergrowth and shout – Hold the front page! . . . there’s no argument. Everything stops. Those hot pixels about your third excursion to the southern Corbières? Spiked – for the moment.
But I can’t start shouting – ‘Read All About It ! Dolmen Found at Montbrun!’ – not yet. Not until I have informed the C.N.R.S. and written to S.E.S.A. and had my fingerprints taken and sworn on the Bible/sung the Marseillaise. It could, after all, just be a pile of old stones.

There is not much to be seen in the photo above – even after an hour of ‘gardening’. So what is there to go on? No discernable orthostats – nothing upright at all. No headstone and no capstone.

The impetus to go looking for this megalithic site was prompted by the findings in the previous Post: that many (not all) stone structures are located near old-established boundaries. And further: that neolithic clan territories may have formed the shape of modern France. From memory, and with a bit of research, I was able to show a score of dolmens and menhirs that followed this pattern. One of them was in fact close-by our nearest village, Montbrun-des-Corbières.


We’ve walked this ridge many times and I’ve looked here and on the neighbouring hillside above Lézignan for another ‘Pierre Droite’. Not having found that one – I assumed that the good people of the region had smashed them both.

[Note: our market-town was once known as Lézignan-les-Réligieuses ( Guerres de Religions). Earlier it was suspected of being another Cathar hot-bed. I, for one, am heartily sick of  ‘the Caffars’. Any mention of them brings out my ‘inner de Monfort’. Mawkish tourists gawking at a minor religious train-crash makes me want to mount another crusade . . .]

So with religious fever running high for centuries throughout the region, it would be ‘a miracle’ if any pagan monument remained standing. Wherever I see a ‘Pierre Plantée’ or ‘Peyro Dreto’ on the map I will dutifully waste an afternoon in order to be able to state with reasonable authority – that there’s nothing left to be seen.

But I had not actually searched this part of the ridge. If I accuse other megalithic guide-book writers of laxity I had better be careful – and pull myself away from the computer, head out into the gale and come back with nothing as usual but the scratches.

Except this time I would do it properly – with Google Earth GPS waymarks an’ all. I would cover the whole area: every clump of trees, every thicket of thorns. And this is what I found:

These are the two major stones of the group – neither are even one meter long or wide. So why even start clearing the undergrowth? Because two of the three criteria had been met: first –  these stones have ‘form’, that is: a history and a placement and a local occitan name. Second – they have an orientation: precisely East-West. This site has other attributes which are indicative if not definitive: it is three metres long (about average for a ‘dolmen simple‘. And it is one meter wide. There are no other stones in the vicinity – it is not part of a collapsed wall enclosure, or old sheep-pen.

So now we need the experts – and if it turns out to be nothing significant, then at least I tried.

[Another note: how ‘dolmens’ and ‘pierres droites’ can get confused is for the next post.]

[And one note more: I have now notified the Vice-President of SESA, Michel Prun, of my ‘discovery’. For the last three years he has been a great help in the library. All the coordinates and photos have been sent to SESA, and the archaeologist-in-charge Guy Rancoule, has been notified. SESA’s once youngest, and now oldest member – Regis Aymé  – has volunteered to visit the site to give his opinion. I could still end up looking like a fool. Or I could have ‘unearthed’ my first dolmen.]