Archive for the ‘dolmen’ Tag

Roquefort-des-Corbières dolmen: known but ignored.   3 comments

Only in this département – Aude – could this happen.  A dolmen, known to the speleologists of the region, and known to the botanists of the region – known presumably to every ‘chasseur de sanglier’ and his dog – has somehow, for over a century, remained unknown to any archaeologist of the region.

[Correction: the dolmen does appear in a collection of regional studies : La France des dolmens et des sepultures collectives (4500-2000 avant J.-C.). edited by Philippe Soulier – 1996.  The Megalithic Portal references its existence too, courtesy of The Captain, an indefatigable researcher. However, neither its location nor any description has ever appeared in the archaeological records.]

There can be few places in the modern western world that take so little interest in their prehistoric heritage, as the Aude. There have been only two surveys of megalithic sites in the département: Germain Sicard’s in 1929 and Michel Barbaza’s in 1979. Bruno Marc’s guide books cobble together these two haphazardly: he does little research, and errors are passed on without examination.

The register of megalithic sites has been inadequate and incomplete for decades. Megalithic sites need to be described: length, height, orientation. Their exact position needs to be marked. And a description of their current state should be made.

That is where I came in, quite by chance. And soon after, that is where Joel Bouakaz came in. Three years ago, unknown to eachother, we embarked on a search of the earliest signs of human habitation in the region. His area of interest is rock engravings and ceremonial workings (an abstruse area of study that encompasses offering-basins, sacrificial bowls, and astrological markings;  while mine was funerary architecture). Naturally they would intersect – and now happily we are meeting and walking together, and sharing our discoveries.

His finds are extraordinary : ‘pierres à cupules’, standing-stones, stone alignments, dolmens, neolithic house-foundations – as well as doubtful mediaeval land boundary-markers. He has put hundreds of hours of difficult foot-work into his own survey. I too have tramped the hills. But together we are now able to re-write the map of this part of  prehistoric France.

How is it possible that a retired amateur Englishman and an untutored French tradesman can produce ‘ Une Nouvelle Inventaire des Sites Mégalithiques de l’Aude’ ?

That’s something for the local French experts to discuss.

More info on the Roquefort dolmen page.

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.

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.

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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.

La Courounelle dolmen, Mayranne II   Leave a comment

I wanted to find the second of the two ‘dolmens de Mayranne’, before writing anything about them. I ‘found’ the first early in December, and two weeks later returned to track the other one down.

I could only find one report on these dolmens – by Jacques Lauriol in the 1960’s – which provided coordinates for a map-series that is unfortunately no longer available. I knew only that one (Lauriol named it dolmen I de Mayranne) was at the eastern side of a small ravine, on le Causse de Coupiat; and the other one (dolmen II) lay on the western side seven hundred metres to the north, on le Causse de la Courounelle.

In the event, this second one was several hundred metres south of his location – nor was it ‘visible d’assez loin‘. In the intervening half-century the garrigue had grown thicker and taller without the herds of goats that once kept the landscape denuded. However, it was another of those preternaturally warm and windless winter days so I did not mind zig-zagging my way across the wierd shrub-and-rubble hillside until I stumbled upon it.

The mid-winter solstice is ten days away – this dolmen may have been built for that celebration: it faces 230° or due south-west. It’s a later, copper-age, sunset-facing passage grave; I might return on the 21st. to see if the sun’s last rays do actually strike the back of the tomb. Getting back out of this trackless wilderness in the dusk (with wild boar ever-present) might decide me against.

More photos & info on these can soon be found on these Pages: Coupiat dolmen (Mayranne I), and La Courounelle dolmen (Mayranne II).

Posted December 13, 2010 by Richard Williams in dolmen

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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.