Archive for the ‘protohistory’ Tag

Germain Sicard’s 2nd. Excursion dans Les Hautes-Corbières Part 1   Leave a comment

Germain Sicard – doctor, wine estate owner, speleologue and archaeologist – has been an amiable companion throughout this summer. His first journey into ‘Les Corbières Sauvages’ was blighted by an easter blizzard, with no dolmens explored and little to report.

A second invitation was offered by ‘notre dévouée collègue Madame Landriq’, who had meanwhile discovered some ‘nouvelles instances’ – more dolmens for the 71 year-old enthusiast to explore. So on July 27th. 1922, he secured his bicycle in the guard’s van at Carcassonne station – ‘d’aller de nouveau dans cette si intéressante, si sauvage et si peu explorée région des Corbiéres.’


At 9.20 two trains pulled in to the station at St. Paul de Fenouillet – his and the train from Rivesaltes bringing the 22 year-old Philippe Héléna – ‘tous grands amateurs de préhistoire’. Then it was off on their ‘bécanes’ up the 12 kms. through the Gorges de Galamus to Cubières-sur-Cinoble, where they met M. and Mme. Landriq, and enjoyed ‘un excellent repas champêtre’.

The four then set off on their ‘machines’ up the road to Soulatge. The dolmen de l’Arco dal Pech is now marked on the IGN Serie Bleu map and is part of a walking trail – back then it was a steep trackless scramble up through trees and box-brush to the summit. Did Mme Landriq wear long skirts – or was she modern enough to sport cycling knickerbockers (‘rationals’)?

[ She will get a Page to herself, in due course – Les Dolmens Imaginaires de Mme. Landriq.]

It’s a stiff thirty minute walk up to the one, two or three dolmens above Cubiéres, and Sicard was not disappointed with the massive, but rather dislocated megalithic tomb at the top.

He and I were less impressed with the other two ‘dolmens’ thirty metres down the slope.

It looks to me more like a diaclase – a wide fissure in the bedrock. I have seen and read about diaclases used as tombs – particularly up at the nécropole de Bois Bas. They may have been used as sepulchres in times of population-stress, when the tribe’s numbers were being severely reduced through epidemics (living close to animals was convenient – but deadly to a group that had not developed any immunities.)

Les Landriq had, so they said, found a quantity of grave-goods at or ‘near’ all three ‘dolmens’. Germain Sicard was not about to pour cold water on their enthusiasm that day. His account, if read carefully, does allow room for conjecture.

The team that are responsible for the waymarked track to the  l’Arco dal Pech dolmen at Cubiéres, must also have read Sicard’s ‘Deuxième Excursion’ and have cleared around the two other graves. But essentially it is ‘Le beau dolmen bien conservé’ that Sicard came to see, that merits its own Page – where more information and photos will be posted.

Meanwhile the four of them carried on to Camps, where they spent the night at the Schoolhouse.  This visit we set up our tent at La Ferme at Camps, where we met an international crew – some of whom have been loyal to the place for 27 years.

This was just the start of a busy weekend of megalith-hunting for Germain and me. I consider myself fairly fit – but I was having trouble keeping up with his itinerary. The following morning Sicard set of at first light to reach a barely known ridge that he called ‘le plateau de Moufri’ (this might be one of his typos, and thus should be Monfri, which might relate to the ridge called Frigoula) high above les Gorges de Galamus. This promontary is largely unknown : it is variously called ‘Frigoula’ and  ‘Les Remparts des Sarrazins’. This was Mme Landriq’s next surprise.She thought it might be a Bronze-age defensive settlement, and subsequent researchers have confirmed her findings.

I had set myself the task of following Germain and Philippe, step by step out of the village, as the sun rose. The landscape no longer looks like this, with cleared fields and man and animal persuing hard but productive work.

The story of Camps, and how it was almost abandoned, and how it was bought by one man, and how it was allowed to return to wilderness? Well – that’s all for another story in another blog.

The walk to the ‘enceinte fortifiée’ of les Remparts des Sarrazins is detailed on its own Page, to the right.

The glorious late July weather allowed me to enjoy a ‘déjeuner sur l’herbe’ as did Germain and Philippe and Les Landriq, not to mention the miller from le moulin de l’Agly who led them high up onto the giddying peaks above Les Gorges.

It’s impossible to show how many hundreds of metres above the Gorges this is. The video replays some of the alarm I felt. This is an extreme defensive position, replicated throughout the region, where Bronze Age tribes felt threatend by invasive forces – and it was probably not long held or needed. It feels very much like the hillfort above our village of Moux – random vestiges of a temporary position constructed rapidly in time of extreme fear and uncertainty.

Again : more info and photos on les Remparts des Sarrazins Page.

As I settled to my lunch, having descended from one of the more extreme places of the Bronze-Age peoples – I realised that Sicard was above all else, a writer. He collected people and experiences and he shared them. Another Natural Scientist might have fussed about the stones under his feet – but Germain, at ease upon his back having descended from this alarming place of safety, could recall these thoughts :

Mais il faut quitter ce merveilleux spectacle, et redescendre les sentiers que nous avons trouvés si ardus à la montée. Nous déjeunons dans la vallée de Riol, près de la source, et pendant que nous reposons mollement sur la pelouse, deux aéroplanes passent bruyamment sur nos têtes, faisant vibrer l’air de leurs ronflements sonores, et filant dans l’azur comme des vautours.Ainsi après avoir visité sur le plateau de Moufri les débuts de la civilisation, nous envoyons franchissant l’espace la merveilleuse évolution.

One small aeroplane passed overhead as I descended. I had fervently hoped that some jet or other piece of machinery would so time its arrival to allow me to mirror and echo and double Sicard’s experience. It did – and I recognised it as a tourist plane taking photos of what is now the bigger show in town : the ‘Cathar Castles’ – for which this region (for better or for worse) is now so well-known.

[NB This post is being copied in its entirety over on to the Page section: Sicard’s 2nd. Excursion.]

There is a Page on the Cubières dolmen or l’Arco dal Pech – to the right.

a dolmen, a daughter and a doubt   1 comment

My birthday passed in a small cascade of surprises – and among them was my daughter, over from Cork, keen to go on another dolmen-hunt. This time, I assured her, things would be much more organised. I had found a short account of Paul Ambert’s digs around the hamlet of Fournes, on the ‘causses’ above Siran in the Minervois Hills. I showed her how high-tech I had got since our last shambolic wanderings : how my GPS and GoogleEarth worked so well together with waypoints entered and screen-captured printouts of likely tumuli . . . I promised there would be no crashing through the garrigue, and that we’d hit two dolmens that have not been recorded for forty years, no problem. You know where this is heading.

First hitch in Dad’s glitch-free foray: new vineyards have appeared since the GoogleSat last passed over – and someone had planted a new standing-stone:

Naturally I got inordinately excited, before she pointed out that it looked . . . too new to be prehistoric.

I reluctantly conceded that yes there was no lichen. So we headed off, stage left, in search of Ambert’s ‘dolmen de Fournes No. 1’.

An hour or so later we gave up, and were about to embark on the 100% copper-bottomed certainty of strolling up to Dolmen No. 2 – when A Man in a Tractor appeared. He saved the afternoon and he saved my skin and he led us by the hand with great humour to The Dolmen. This was the only dolmen he knew, and had known since he was small. He remembered crawling into it, and hunters scanning for game on top of its capstone. And he remembered how annoyed everyone was when the archaeologists came and stripped the tomb open. And how they demanded that some repairs were made. And how the archaeologists slapped down a bed of concrete, by way of conciliation. “Une couche pas trop archéologique!”

This, incidentally was not some local ‘abruti’, or thicko: he was a ‘Prof. de Sciences’ who had taught all over France, and had retired recently to grow vines in his native earth. He was the most amiable of men – open and good-humoured – and we completely forgot to ask if he was responsible for setting up that third megalithic monument.

So here is, at least, one of the two genuinely prehistoric stone structures at Fournes:

As a graduate of French (&Politics) she puzzled over the none-too-clear description of the two digs, and the sketch-map that Ambert added. And only thanks to our unknown guide do we now realise that both map and description are faulty.

So for a more detailed account of our visit, go to the Fournes Dolmen 2 page, to the right. Dolmen number one awaits another trip.

Combe Lignières – a little lost world   Leave a comment

Never mind that the world is going to hell in a motorised golf-cart, never mind that the next volcano will trigger the collapse of tourism and take our livelihood down with it – this May day was insanely munificent : it kept delivering surprises and delights that went way past what I asked for.

This is the day that was in it : hot sun and breezes, grassy gullies and massive rock-shelters,  micro-vineyards interplanted with young olives, ancient cherry-trees and antique wells, wierd rock-formations and a rare stone-alignment . . . and a long-lost dolmen.

The walk up the combe was lush with grasses, wild asparagus and fennel – but the path led upward onto the hot stoney causse.

But up among the hot vines was a cool slot : limpid water gulped down, flavored with wild aniseed.

It’s a complex photo, but a simple scene : one ancient ‘guine’ or sour cherry; one stone shed with an old Peugeot, and one extraordinary stone chamber above. On the bed of the truck was a note : ‘VENEZ BOIRE une verre à la maison au-dessus. Pascal.’ An invitation to a friend, or to the world?

Stumbling around on the top of this little ‘causse’, I found this row of stones. Three are visible and another 6 disappear into the scrub : all in a clear 15 metre line running south-east: towards the winter solstice. At first I thought this was ‘the dolmen’, and was mightily disappointed – it looked all wrong. [More on the cromlech/stone alignment of Saussenac in the next post & Page].

But I have done my homework : I have identified other likely ‘white blobs’ on Google Earth, and I have Paul Ambert’s generalised description from the  ’70’s and so it’s on up into the sea of  prickly ilex. And after an hour of thorns and trees and scrub, a stoney ‘island’ appears, with that heart-jolting, breath-seizing glimpse of a white slab jutting above the garrigue : it’s there! It does exist!

It’s huge and it’s magnificent – and it’s a complete wreck.

The photos that follow, on the Combe Lignières Dolmen Page, will show what a mess time and peasants and archaeologists have made of the place. This is the Last Stone Standing. As usual, it’s the primary, eastern orthostat – almost always the deepest set and the biggest. Yet this recurrence is never mentioned by any of the experts who have visited all these dolmens of ours, over the past century. Do they not see these as buildings, as architecture? Do they only see them as ‘boxes’ that hold the objects they are so desirous of?

The expertise of archaeologists is not in doubt here – but the narrowness of focus has I fear, led to a failure of imagination. The subject of Ruins is going to be a recurrent theme in subsequent posts.

The day didn’t end there :

This old fellow was in clover – he thinks Combe Lignières is heaven.

We live under the slumbering bulk of Alaric, and forget how large it looms to others.

When architecture and landscape mean so much to ordinary people, I wonder at their exclusion by archaeologists : Ambert’s insistence that the Combe Lignière dolmen is oriented to the north – when this view is so present to the south.

The dolmen hunter’s reward :

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.]

Dolmen de Boun Marcou   Leave a comment

When I first started exploring this whole area around Mailhac, and learnt that an oppidum was not a Roman fort but a Chalcolithic hill settlement, and that there was not just one but three necropoli, and that there existed a cave by a spring, and that there was a dolmen there too, and that the whole affair had been evolving and developing for a thousand years – I realised that getting all the information and photos and maps for the whole complex was going to stretch my abilities at ‘blorganisation’.

And so it proved : there are now posts and pages that don’t seem to come in any order, nor seem shaped in any cohesive way. I’m more of a reader than a librarian or a methodical historian. I’m hoping the tags will sort it all out, and that the grouping of all the topics under a ‘parent page’ will gather most of it together.

And consistent with this inconsistency, I shall now introduce the writer who introduced me to the whole subject of protohistory – who, fittingly was not an archaeologist at all, but an American and a poet : Gustaf Sobin. The book is ‘Luminous Debris. Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc’. It was a propitious find in a Carcassonne second-hand bookshop. It is by turns dense, lively, academic, joyful – his chapter on Mailhacian pottery and its pictographs was exhilarating speculation and has inspired in me what I hope will be a life-long interest.

It sent me immediately to search the Internet – where I found references to the ‘vieux village ‘, and to the Grotte de Treille , and finally to the dolmen of Boun Marcou on a small hill called Trigodinnas, right next to Lou Cayla.

boun-marcou-chevet-to-foot

View from the chevet or headstone, to the foot.

For more on this go to Boun Marcou dolmen, Mailhac Page.

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.

Standing Stones, and lying maps   Leave a comment

Quid is France’s Encyclopedia Britannica, on paper since 1967 and online since 1997. IGN is the Institute Géographique National – it began as an army mapping service in 1887 and went public in 1967. They are invaluable tools in researching old stones but they are not without weaknesses. This is what I found for Siran, a village nearby in the Minervois:

Cachette de fondeur de l’âge du Bronze à Centeilles. [Traces of Bronze Age smelting]
29 dolmens* et tumulus.
Habitat préhistorique à Centeilles, Ausine, Belvédère.
Champ des Morts.
Nécropole
1er âge du Fer à La Prade.
14 villas romaines, principalement : Najac, Saint-Michel de Montflaunez.
Oppidum du pic St-Martin occupé de l’âge du Fer au
6ème apr.J.-C.
Mosaïque gallo-romaine* à la chapelle de Centeilles.
Tombes wisigothiques à La Rouviole, Le Champ des Morts, Centeilles, Saint-Martin, Saint-Pierre des Troupeaux, Saint-Gontran.

And this is what the new IGN map says is there:

Centeilles seemed central to this rich and diverse little corner, and was one of the few from the list to be marked on the map, as was the Gallo-Roman fort [camp or oppidum] closeby. That confident red star looked a certain bet, so I set off this saturday to see what I could find – knowing that information on Quid could well be long out-of-date and that I could be beating around the bush all afternoon for nothing. But not suspecting that the map could get it so wrong.

The 13th.C. Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Centeilles was certainly there with its stone roof and holy well – as was a host of other fascinating structures and features [see following Posts & Pages] – and so were the remains of a massive emplacement deep in the wood where the map shows the red star. It wasn’t until I got home and compared this new map with the 1967 version that doubt set in about The Thing in the Wood. I now needed to persuade Jessi and Mary to come out on another hunt this sunday.

The story of this weekend’s two visits to Centeilles is complicated, so the photos about it all are over on the Pages section. Starting with the Not the Gallo-Roman Camp Page. And as fast as I can post them, the following will appear :-

The real Ancien Camp Gallo-Romain on the Pic St-Martin Hillfort Page.

The dolmen of Centeilles – or les Pierres Plantées, take your pick – on the Centeilles Dolmen Page.

The dolmen du Mourel des Fadas – on the Dolmen des Fadas Page.

The Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Centeilles – the extraordinary frescoes, its history, holy well and capitelles – on the Chapelle de Centeilles Page.

And the second earlier church at Centeilles [in many ways even more extraordinary] – on the Chapelle Ruinée Page. There was a third even earlier church here at one time – but it’s been lost . . .

And then there’s those Roman villas, and the visigoth necropoli, and the neolithic habitat here too, somewhere – but I need another visit or ten, for them.