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.]
The word is derived from the early Latin ob-pedum: ‘enclosed space’, and possibly from the Proto-Indo-European ‘pedóm-‘ , an occupied space or footprint.
Julius Caesar described the larger Celtic Iron Age settlements he encountered in Gaul as oppida and the term is now used to describe the large pre-Roman towns that existed all across Western and Central Europe. Many oppida grew from hill forts but not all of them had defensive functions. The main features of the oppida are the architectural construction of the walls and gates, the spacious layout and commanding view of the surrounding area.
The development of oppida was a milestone in the urbanisation of the continent as they were the first large settlements north of the Mediterranean that could genuinely be described as towns. Caesar pointed out that each tribe of Gaul would have several oppida but that they were not all of equal importance, perhaps implying some form of hierarchy.
Hillforts, enclosures, defensive spurs, walls and ditches do not spring up in times of ease and peaceable neighborliness. It is during times of fear and uncertainty that massive effort is demanded of the local populace – producing, in our small area of the Aude, many significant ‘proto-castles’ during the transitional period Bronze final/ Premier Age de Fer.
The uncertainty must have started with the collapse of the Minoan civilisation, and again when vital trading links were lost with the end of the Mycenean empire. This Dark Age lasted for over three centuries. The fear? Rumours of a north-eastern race that were armed with new weapons and new skills: The Volques Tectosages and their Iron – the coming of the Celts.
Our local autocthones [native inhabitants] were the ‘peuples élisyques’ – a tribe centred on the Montlaurès hill-settlement, above the lagoons surrounding modern Narbonne – called by the Greek traders, Hélicé. South of here towards Spain were the Iberic tribes, and east towards Italy were the Ligurians. Herodotus of Halicarnassus writing in the 5th C BCE in his History [ Book 7 ch. 165] writes of a mercenary army made up of Phoenicians, Lybians, Iberians, Ligurians, Elysics, Sards [of Sardinia], and Cyrnians [Corsicans] – that is, all the tribes around the Gulf of Lion and the western Mediterranean.
For centuries preceeding the arrival of the Celts, the Elisycs ruled from Narbonne in the east to Carcassonne in the west. A short stretch of territory but an area that was rich in mineral wealth and full of cultural and historical wealth: the biggest dolmens, menhirs and necropoli in Languedoc. For millennia this land had been a benign and peaceable trading corridor : Pyrennean sheep herds in transhumance arriving from the South, Cornish tin and Irish silver in transit from the North, Cypriot copper and Greek wine in boats from the sea. All had to pass the marshy plain of the Atax/Attagus – the River Aude – between the foothills of the Montagnes Noires and the massif of Mont Alaric and the Corbieres Hills. All benefited from the mineral wealth – the gold and manganese – and the metallurgic skills of the local tribes. And from the peace and stability that had held since the Copper Age.
The breakdown of this civilisation led to the Dark Ages : the elaborately decorated pottery, the exchange of ornaments from afar, as evinced in funerary goods – gave way to a cruder and unadorned ceramic style, and to the rise of warrior classes and a heirarchy of power and protection.
Thus a series of proto-castles were constructed around -800 by the Elisyan people, on promontories that allowed commanding views out over the plain and the road and river traffic, and security from attack by means of massive earth- and stone-works. From the oppida by the sea at Peyriac-de-Mer and Pech Maho in the east, past the the two vast settlements at Montlaurès and Ensérune, to La Moulinasse at Salles d’Aude, and on west inland to one of the greatest settlement-towns of the hinterland : La Cayla at Mailhac. And thence to Mourrel-Ferret at Olonzac, Camp Rolland here above our village of Moux, and onward to the Cros hill fort at Caulnes-Minervois and the Millegrand oppidum at Trebes – with Carsac at Carcassonne at the eastern limit. The pattern continues up towards the Atlantic coast – all defending and provisioning the vital trade route to the North.
It was however the Volques Tectosages themselves, centred on Toulouse, who took them over and re-established the trading-routes, ceding them eventually to the Romans – who made good use of some of them, while razing others to the ground.
There are six main oppida here in The Aude – follow the links in the Pages panel to the right. The Cros Hillfort and the Pic St-Martin hillfort have already been published there – the Roc Gris oppidum will be next, followed by the Mourrel-Ferrat oppidum. More to follow.
The information given on Quid for the Oppidum du Pic St-Martin is accurate – while the new IGN Seies Bleu map – and the http://www.geoportail.fr placing – is out by nearly 2 km. Its position is 2. 39′ 54″ E, 43. 20′ 11″ N and it is a most impressive structure. The site was occupied continuously from the Iron Age through to the arrival of the Visigoths. The earliest inhabitants were possibly the Ibères or the Ligures, but more certainly the Volques Tectosages [ a Celtic tribe that put up a fierce resistance to the invading Romans, and who were themselves an invading force from Middle Europe – the name translates best as Land-hungry Wolves ].
The scree slope rises about 300 feet from here to the walls.
More photos and info on the Pic St-Martin Hillfort Page