May. 20th, 2012

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What a day.  Upped my mileage on the bike to 17 miles today, managed to beat J in the sprint for the 30mph sign two weeks running (he says he let me win, but I think I caught him napping.  I am, however, now paying a heavy price for that endeavour, as I'm KNACKERED!!).  And I've started pricking out my poppy Dawn Chorus, which means I've run out of space for plants again and I've embarked on a marathon job which will take forever.  Another pot has been constructed on the patio - photos will be posted next weekend!!

Some prehistory now, as I'm sure you all want a little break from medieval castles and churches...

While plotting itineraries for our Carcassone trip, I discovered that within reasonably easy reach of Carcassone was a prehistoric monument which was renowned as the biggest Neolithic chambered tomb in south-west France.

So naturally, I had to seek it out.

Named Le Dolmen de Les Fades (I think 'Tomb of the Fairies' is probably a reasonable translation...), it lay near the little town of Piepioux just north of the region of Caunes-Minervois.  When I tried to tell our interested hosts at the hotel of our forthcoming visit to the site, they just looked vague, even though I was trying to use helpful terms like un monument prehistorique, un dolmen Neolithique, etcetera.  In the end, I think they thought I was delusional, and that I'd either made it up, or hallucinated the whole thing. 

Perhaps it was my lousy pronounciation...

Anyway, I can assure you all that I did not imagine Le Dolmen de les Fades.  I even have the photographs to prove it. 

It was extremely big.  Unfortunately, I can't tell you how big, because I didn't have a measuring tape and by the time we actually found it, I was too exhausted to pace the thing out.  It had been a long day...

It is, of course, a burial mound from the Early Neolithic period.  I'm not well-versed in the Neolithic of south-west France, but I guess the principles of this Neolithic tomb are much the same as any other.  It was erected at a prominent space in the landscape by the local community, which became a repository for the defleshed bones of the dead.  Placed communally within this space, the dead ceased to be individuals, and become instead anonymous ancestors.  This should not be seen as evidence of an undifferentiated society where all men (and women??) are considered equal.  The manipulation of these ancestral remains was probably carried out by a priviliged few, who were permitted to enter the tomb and carry out the required rituals on behalf of their community, while lesser beings looked on... 

If you want to read more on the subject, check out Fragments of Antiquity by John Barrett or Bronze Age Britain by Michael Parker Pearson, or anything by Colin Richards, Julian Thomas or Mark Edmonds (whose specialist subject is stone axes...)

Originally, the stone chamber would have been entirely concealed beneath a covering mound.  This has now eroded, leaving the characteristic 'dolmen' structure:-

The classification of these monuments is an art in itself, and careers have been made by various academics who characterised and mapped out the different types (see, for example, Earthen Long Barrows by Paul Ashbee, I think it is.  Sadly, my own personal copy (marked with my name on the flyleaf!!) got nicked from the Postgrad room in Glasgow Uni 20 years ago and I've never been able to replace it, but there are alternative sources available, including that splendid National Museum of Wales book The Tomb Builders which I reviewed previously in the blog.  Amongst the bewildering variety of forms available, there's the Cotswold Severn type, the Clyde-Carlingford type, the stalled cairn, the passage cairn, etcetera, etcetera.

All of which terms are applicable in the British Isles, so if you're an archaeologist wandering abroad in a foreign land, heaven help you.  You've bound to put your foot in it and completely misinterpret what you're looking at...

Nevertheless, I'm going to try.  I've not had that much experience of the French Neolithic.  I explored the megaliths of Britanny as a child and had the good fortune to dig on a Neolithic long barrow in Normandy for a couple of weeks as a postgrad.  Which would have been great fun, had Squire not just been diagnosed with navicular which meant that my thoughts were elsewhere...

Anyway, this one's interesting (NB: I have yet to find a chambered tomb or cairn that I would describe as boring!!) because it's similar to a stalled cairn, in that it comprises a single passage subdivided by stone sills along its length.  The supporting walls are largely made up of drystone walling (very Cotswold-Severn!!) interspersed with megalithic stones, which are graded in height with the largest ones in the centre of the passage, where the massive slab remains in place forming a roof:-

But what I found particularly interesting were the shaped slabs which allowed entrance into this central chamber.  They've been worked to form a circular hole, which would have made entering and exiting the space quite challenging, if not arduous.  Quite appropriate, really.  Venturing into the presence of the ancestors is not an exercise which should be undertaken lightly. 

These blocking stones also serve to screen this central chamber from the areas beyond:-

So there you have it.  Looks so simple on the face of it, but in reality, there's quite a lot going on!

Yeah, there's no doubt about it.  I do love my prehistory...


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