Archive for the ‘neolithic’ 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.

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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.

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 MH 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.

Posted October 25, 2010 by MH in Uncategorized

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Megalithic markers   3 comments

All the rain that never fell this summer is falling now and will continue to fall for days yet.

Which gives me time and excuse enough to work up my latest observations into a Grand Theory. In the course of the last few weeks I have been trying to make sense of the scant information about the dolmens of  ‘les causses de Siran’ that has filtered down through the decades, and thus locate and identify them. One small key was a brief mention of the Peyro-Rousso dolmen by Jean Miquel de Barroubio in his 1896 ‘Essai sur l’arrondissement de St. Pons’. The dolmen, he says, is both ‘un rendezvous de chasseurs’ and ‘une borne entre les communes de Siran et La Livinière’.

Earlier this year I had noted that the two dolmens at Fournes, and the menhir, were also located at a boundary: that between Siran and Cesseras. Yesterday it occurred to me that these may not be solitary examples, accidents or exceptions: there might be others.

There were indeed. To economise on space I have randomly paired the following screen-captures of megaliths in the area. The purple line appears when you add the ‘Unités Administratives > Limites Administratives’ layer on the IGN GeoPortail.fr site.

There are twenty so far: the last example – the two menhirs at Tournissan – is the most graphic.

Above : Agel and Ventenac  –  Below : Arques and Talairan

Above : Azille and Tourril  –  Below : Balsabé (or Cigalière) and Jappeloup

Above: in the top left corner the dolmen of les Lauzes couvertes, or Liquieres, near Cébazan – and the two Villeneuve dolmens.

Below : the vanished standing-stones above Conilhac and Montbrun.

Above: Pépieux and Monze  –  Below : Laroque-de-Fa and Talairan

Above: one of the Massac dolmens, and (unmarked) the dolmen de la Roudounière – see Page, left.

Below: Trassanel and Olonzac

Below: two views of the menhir at Malves

And below are the last two: left – the higher of the two menhirs at Tournissan and right – the stone by the roadside.

Here they are seen together : there is no mistaking which direction the boundary line is following –

And here is a late addition: I should have thought earlier of  the Grand Menhir de Counozouls. It is 500 m. from the boundary between the communes of Counozouls and Roquefort-de-Sault, and 200 m. from the ‘ancien chemin‘ that linked the two villages. At 8.9 metres tall, and weighing 50 tons, it is the biggest in southern France, and one of the largest in Europe.

My theory is stuck at the ‘Chicken or Egg’ stage (for foreign readers, this means “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” It’s a common, if false dichotomy): were megaliths just useful and durable objects in a landscape, allowing communal boundaries to be easily drawn? Or were communes the extension, into a more modern world, of Neolithic tribal or clan territories? And if dolmens were sited so close to the borders of a neighbouring group – what implications does that have for our understanding of the functions and rituals that surround the burial-place? Were menhirs placed there as a warning or a welcoming sign?

Of course, what I have not shown are all the megaliths that are located far from any boundary-line. I don’t yet know which are the greater in number. Nor whether it is worth pursuing : perhaps it’s all random – perhaps all can be explained by ley-line energies.

La Roudouniero dolmen at Rouffiac-des-Corbières   2 comments

When I walked into the big old schoolroom that houses the library of one of France’s oldest learnéd societies : ‘la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude’ ( SESA, at Carcassonne ) a few years ago  – my heart sank. But my spirits lifted.

Underfoot lay grey-brown splintery boards of a much-trodden lecture-room, while Languedoc sunlight was made to stand outside. A few dusty old men bantered amongst desks and shelves. I’d been expelled from a school like this, for being a troublesome misfit – but now those walls of books were a welcome sight. They held the information that would lead me to the megalithic sites that have gone unseen and unreported for half a century.

My boots and haversack caused a stir before I’d uttered a word. I was their first English member in a long while – and I was intent on hunting down every last one of their long-lost dolmens. I was their B-movie Harrison Ford – and all I needed were the clues. SESA has provided me with most of them.

But there is a body of knowledge that is never written down, that never reaches Carcassonne let alone Paris. The megalithic tomb they call simply ‘le Bac’ has been known to generations, around Rouffiac. This knowledge did not reach the ears of Marie Landriq – keen amateur historian of her region – until she was about to leave the area in 1924. She sent the discovery in, to La Société Préhistorique Francaise (SPF) at La Sorbonne  – who merely accorded it a passing mention.

She calls it the dolmen de la Roudouniero, from the ‘townland’ where it is located.

That brief note of her discovery is the first of just three mentions of this large strange dolmen. There is no published report on it, and no photo – online or in any library. In the 1920’s Sicard notes that there is a third dolmen to the south of Paza, in his ‘Deuxieme Excursion dans les Hautes-Corbières’ . In the 1960’s Jean Guilaine has an annotation referring to a ‘dolmen Sud ou dolmen III de Paza’. In the 1990’s  J-P Bocquenet, in his doctoral thesis, attempts to make a case for a necropolis at Paza, based on the hearsay of Sicard. It’s evident that he never visited the place : the three megaliths are scattered over too wide an area. In the 2000’s Bruno Marc – frequently declared as the expert on all things megalithic in Languedoc – seems completely ignorant of its existence. Or of any of the other megaliths around it. This is how knowledge degrades and disappears – just like old stones.

When Germain Sicard went exploring for dolmens and menhirs that summer in 1922, he knew he was going ‘out into the wilds’. Little seems to have changed in the century that separates our visits : it is still  ‘Les Corbières Sauvages‘ to most of our comfortable contemporary historians. It’s just that Sicard went to great lengths – on bicycle and on foot – to visit these extraordinary prehistoric sites, and to report on their state – while our current ‘experts’ seem reluctant to put their boots on. Even to visit the library.

[More photos and information on La Roudounièro dolmen page, to the right.]