Archive for the ‘oppidum’ Tag

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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Oppidum de Minerve-la-Vieille   Leave a comment

The single defensive wall of Minerve-la-Vieille can be seen from an altitude of 10 kilometers (if you know what to look for), and is possibly the biggest visible prehistoric structure in the south of France.

At 6 km. it looks like this, a white bar in the top left corner:

At 2 km. like this:

The visible section is about 60 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 2 m. high. It is a massive and dramatic example of an ‘ éperon barré‘   – literally a barred spur, a closed-off 5 hectare tip of a high ‘peninsular’ with sheer drops of 40 metres on the east and west flanks.

The term ‘oppidum’ might seem inappropriate – it more resembles  ‘une enceinte fortifiée ‘  similar to that at Le Cros near Caunes, than the more compact Gallo-Roman structures like Pic St. Martin. There are no documents on the web to be found about it – just a couple of brief mentions:

M. J. Laurent-Mathieu  Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 1935  Volume 32

un camp celtique (oppidum) appelé « Minerve-la-Vieille », est délimité sur deux faces par un angle de la falaise à pic, et protégé sur sa troisième face, par un mur colossal en pierre sèche (long. 80 m. X haut. 2 m. X larg. 2m50).


It certainly is a ‘colossal wall’ – and placed in the midst of a wilderness of scrub, it’s one of the strangest places I’ve visited.

More photos and info on the Minerve-la-Vieille Page.

What the hell are you doing here? (Part 2)   2 comments

Since Mid-Winter’s Day I’ve been up on les Causses de Minerve about ten times, and I’ve only ever met two people up there, in all those hours of walking. In February, it was my good fortune to meet a Remarkable Man, a once-in-a-lifetime event. In March it was a minor fonctionnaire from the Forestry. Neither meeting began well. I don’t need to be fluent in French – I can read faces at a hundred paces:  What the hell are you doing here?

I was looking for the oppidum at La Gasque.

It turns out that Minerve has an excess of oppida : there’s supposed to be one on the Pont Natural, and the €1 million rebuild of the the Remparts and the Visitors Centre has revealed another, on the existing site of Minerve. Another is supposedly located at Brunan, and yet another has been documented at Les Lacs ( une enceinte vérazienne et village préhistorique, searched by Paul Ambert’s archaeological team, in the ’70’s).

But the one I was looking at is well-attested (though there is no documentation online) :

[It’s pink, to the left of Minerve]

None of all this impressed André Giral, who had been watching me clambering over the pile of white rocks with camera and notebook. I realise that my appearance and behaviour can seem doubtful : old clothes, wild hair, disreputable van – but since my motives are honorable and my conscience is clear, then I am happy to confront the suspicions of others.

He was out with his dogs, looking after the young pheasants that had just been let loose on the terrain. He didn’t want anyone upsetting them. He’d never heard of this oppidum. He didn’t like the idea of me writing about the place. He didn’t want any more people coming up onto les Causses. I got the feeling he didn’t like people.

He had once been a great man for the hunt it seemed. But now?  ‘ça me dégoûte.’

Everything about the modern world upset him: he swept his arms about the seemingly wild and untrammelled landscape and declared that it was empty. He was 84 he said, and only twenty years ago the hills were full of birds and game. I said I thought they still were. He derided this: a fraction of the wildlife was left. Few birds, no rabbits, no insects. Plants and trees had disappeared. He’d walked these hills for decades, and he saw the decline.

His anger and despair at human folly and pollution occupied our entire walk back to the road. He had however accepted that my interest was genuine and was not going to bring yet more tourists, whom he clearly held in low esteem. It emerged that he too had conducted research into the prehistoric vestiges on these hills – and that I should be concentrating my efforts on le Causse Grand and Causse Mégié, where the ‘real’ oppidum, Minerve-la-Vieille, was sited.  And as we were about to part, he seemed to come to a decision – he said he might have something for me in his van. From under a pile of sacks he produced a muddied plastic ring-folder.

It was the most astonishing document that I have ever handled :  his own hand-drawn maps and scale plans of all the prehistoric sites on the Causses. It is dated 1985, the year he stopped pot-holing and dolmen-hunting. He just handed it to me, with no further demands or assurances. An hour earlier I was a foreign intruder – now I was entrusted with half a life-time’s study and experience.

There are ten A4 pages of detailed drawings : dolmens and grottes, rock-shelters and wells, prehistoric cabins and walls. Tracks, cliffs and streams. He wanted me to continue – ‘parce que vous etes jeune’ – and he was no longer able for it. His regret at the decline of the world and at his own failing powers affected me deeply. He had fortuitously crossed paths with someone who could understand and appreciate what had meant so much to him.

I am revisiting all his places and giving them GPS coordinates: they will form part of a document that will be presented to S.E.S.A. (la Société des Etudes Scientifiques de l’Aude)  and its archaeological library. No further GPS coordinates will be given on this website.

The claims of the current guide-book to the dolmens of les Causses de Minerve, and the other Causses des Montagnes Noires, are negligent and inaccurate. They fail any serious attempt at documenting the extent of these half-forgotten places : it’s not enough to say that they are ‘difficilement trouvables‘.

André Giral was sixty when he made these maps, when he stopped going down pot-holes and through garrigue. Looking down at me from his height, and his age, he said: You’re still young. I wish I had your youth again.

I know now – as I have never fully known before – what I am doing here. It is as much the finding of old stones, as it is the meeting with extraordinary men.

Photos and info on La Gasque Oppidum are on the Page, right.

Posted April 1, 2010 by MH in chalcolithic, hillfort, languedoc, oppidum

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Dolmens and Hillforts   Leave a comment

Languedoc has been a crossroads of people and cultures and trade since prehistoric times – and our corner of South West France where the river Aude meets the Mediterranean, reveals these traces most particularly. It’s an unassuming but benign river : bringing snowmelt from the Pyrenees, slowing in the fertile plain, before opening into accessible lagoons at its mouth near Narbonne.

From the south, over the Pyrenees, came the sunrise dolmen-builders, and from the sea in the east came the sunset builders. They came and stayed because the climate was good – and because there were metals in the hills, and a clear route through the Carcassonne Gap and down the Garonne to the Atlantic.

Metals and goods came down from Ireland and Cornwall, and were traded and exchanged for ceramics and jade and jet from Italy and Greece, and up from the Iberian peninsular. Poppy and sativa seed users met the beer-drinking Bell-beaker people – traces remain in the now-silted protohistoric lagoon ports.

For them here, the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic period was a golden age, with enough land and forest to go round, sufficient water and wildlife for the population, and an energizing interchange of ideas and goods. Families and clans lived in peaceful harmony with modest communal burial tombs spaced evenly through the hills of the Minervois and the Corbieres. There was no warrior-caste : there was no war.

It’s with deep pleasure then, that I roam around these hills looking for the half-forgotten burial places of these happy few.

Of course they did not know that they were happy. They didn’t know that the mines they dug would produce manganese-dust, leaving precious children and valued elders half-paralysed. And that the need for wood to fuel the forges would denude the hills of trees. Or that their ever-increasing flocks of sheep would strip the slopes of soil. Or that empires to the east would fall, and trade collapse, and that a dark age would engulf them. Or that new people would come, the Volcae Tectosages or Celts as we generally know them, with the new metal and the iron-working skills that produced lethal and durable weaponry. Then everything could start up all over again, but different.

I record and write about those Iron Age hillforts and oppida because my megalithic searches bring me into close contact with them – and because they too are fast being forgotten. But I do it with unease and a sense of foreboding – though their locations are often dramatic and the construction impressive. For by this time money has arrived, and these places represent concentrations of wealth and power and fear.

So I return with relief to the solitary dolmens, knowing they signify valleys of people unencumbered yet with the burden of overpopulation and the weight of complexity.

[The two photos are from recent finds on separate Causses above Minerve. I believe they are dolmens that have not been visited and  recorded by historians or archaeologists for many decades – though local hunters and shepherds know them well. The problems concerning the accurate naming and locating of these ‘lost’ dolmens continues to this day, with unverified claims and inaccurate placings only clouding the subject. Full posts on both these ‘new’ dolmens, and a summary of their history to follow.]

an unremarked oppidum near Trausse   1 comment

Almost unmarked – but still quite remarkable. It should have a name: so I shall call it the Affiac Oppidum.

The hill upon which sit the vestiges of the oppidum lies just to the east of Trausse-Minervois, and dominates the Aude river plain. An old secondary Roman road from Carcassonne to Béziers passes close to its foot. A sizeable clay-works dating back to pre-Roman times lies on this once-important thoroughfare.

The locating of this impressive structure involved the three tools I have at my disposal : time, luck and perseverance.

This is presumably the entrance, opening south.

More photos & info on the Affiac oppidum page, right.

Posted March 9, 2010 by MH in Uncategorized

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Lou Cayla, Mailhac : one of The High Places   Leave a comment

Les hauts lieux.

French is an impoverished language. Its dictionaries are a third smaller than ours, but it still manages to be poetic and expressive. So when I say I’ve just visited one of ‘les hauts lieux ‘ I don’t mean an arduous climb. I’ve just explored one of the great places in the south of France – massive, significant and important. But for all this it is still a low-lying, modest site with little to distinguish it from the landscape around.

vieux-village-3

The story is both extraordinary and humdrum. A fourteen-year-old girl, Odette Taffanel, begins to find things in her family’s vineyards in 1929. After the War, in 1948, she starts taking it seriously. In the 50’s she ropes in her younger brother Jean. Their work together unearths one of the biggest late bronze/early iron age sites in the Midi. Archaeologists flock to the site, and careers are made. She is awarded the Legion d’Honneur . The site and its findings are considered so significant that ‘Mailhacais’ becomes a benchmark for pottery and funerary rites in the Urn-Field culture of southern France. At 93, she is still writing and publishing – and still receiving visitors at her house in the village.

tomb-grand-bassin-1

Photo of a grave emplacement – Necropolis  Bassin 1

But the story of Lou Cayla goes back further than the Ancien Village – it starts with water from an abundant spring, a grotto, and a dolmen, all on the same small insignificant hill.

For more info and photos on all these aspects, see the Lou Cayla Parent Page.

Semi-detached oppidum at le Carla, Durban Corbieres   10 comments

Quid.fr is France’s Encyclopedia Britannica – and has this to say about the canton of Durban Corbières:

Vestiges Préhistoriques : 1 – Oppidum de Carla. 2 – Habitation Gallo-Romain au Roc de Carla

. . . and that is the sum-total of information that I can find on the site. I came across this meagre thread while researching the dolmen de Palats which lies 2 km. north. We drove past le Roc a few days ago :-

oppidum roc de carla

– and the only words for it are impregnable and inhospitable. With uninhabitable running a close third. The first two are desirable in a defensive stronghold – but its location is not obvious. As far as I am aware this oppidum is a lone outpost, far from the linked chain of defensive hill-settlements that runs east-west along the Aude river valley to command the long-established trade-route [that became the Via Aquitania and now the Autoroute des Deux Mers]. It has intermittent streams at the base of the rock [Carla is a version of Cayla, or Caylar – occitan for caillou, or pebble – a diminuitively affectionate term for these jagged outcrops that were favoured sites throughout the region]. But the main river that runs through this fairly barren part of the Corbières is La Berre, and that passes well to the south, through Durban – with its mediaeval castle high on a rock.

It is also possible that this was one of the more northern oppida belonging to the ibero-celtic tribes who built the oppidum de Ruscino [at Perpignan] later to become the ‘capitol’ of the Roussillon region.

Had I been alone I would probably have spent a painfully futile afternoon up there, hoping for a photograph of a crumbled wall or two – but I had wiser counsel beside me. So we drove on to the dolmen. This now joins the lengthening list of sites that require some local knowledge – and a set of crampons.

Co-ordinates for the oppidum will be available from S.E.S.A. at Carcassonne – or from me.