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Because I had a fabulous day at work today, speed-writing captions to accompany an array of pretty slides which summarised almost twelve thousand years of human occupation in Scotland (Mesolithic to World War II - Phew!!!) and appeasing that frustrated part of me which is and will always be a Failed Academic (!).  And because I'm currently enjoying a television history of WALES which is being shown on BBC SCOTLAND (wonders never cease...)...

...I thought I'd indulge in some gratuitous photos of Segbury Hillfort.

Okay, it's not quite an Uffington in its grandeur, because it's a univallate hillfort, as opposed to a more complex multivallate hillfort, but its scale is still quite staggering;


Once upon a time, a helpful person planted trees upon the rampart, which might not do the rampart much good in the long term on account of the resulting root disturbance, but it sure helps get an understanding of the size of its interior.

In one field, we get one half of the monument. Here's a view of the other half, from the road that splits it in two:-

You can just see the rampart as a darker green strip along the horizon above the interior of the field...

My last photo features the rampart. I said earlier that Segsbury's a univallate fort - well it is over most of its extent, except in some places where parts of a second, outer, rampart can be identified:-

Well, Part One of The History of Wales is over.  I've always wanted to see a programme like this on Welsh history, and I knew one was in the pipeline, but I was kind of hoping that it would be a bit more in depth and presented by a Neil Oliver type. Don't get me wrong - I like Huw Edwards a lot, but he ain't no professional historian, if you get my drift... 

Anyway, what struck me in this first episode devoted to Welsh prehistory and extending through to the early medieval period was firstly how much I already knew, and secondly how many of the featured sites I've actually visited in the past: Tre'r Ceri, Pentre Ifan, Caerleon, St David's, Great Orme. And Llanfair PG, too...  In a way this is of course quite reassuring, since Wales is supposedly the Land of My Fathers but I'd hoped I'd learn something new...

Ah well.  One thing's for sure: I really must pencil in another visit to Anglesey some time, just so I can check out the chambered tombs.  A return visit to the one and only Paris Mountain would be on the cards, too (please forgive any spelling mistakes, oh Welsh followers of this blog!!)

Oh, and then there was the one, the only, the magnicent - LLYN FAWR HOARD!!!  Yay!!!!!!

And tomorrow we'll no doubt be progressing onto the medieval period.  Eddy I, Llewellyn & Co. And all the Welsh castles...  Can't wait!!!

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Apologies for the silence.  It's been a busy couple of days...

I've just returned from Edinburgh, where I was attending a fascinating conference devoted to the prehistory of the Tyne-Forth region, details of which are posted in the link below:-


Now, as you can probably imagine, modern archaeological studies have a tendency to focus on areas lying to either side of that illusory little line that divides Scotland from England (and that only got fossilised in its current form when the Scots lost Berwick-upon-Tweed just over 500 years ago...). This conference made a refreshing change in that it comprised a whole bunch of collaborative studies which considered the disputed 'border' territory in its wider, regional context.

Supposedly, they'll be web-mounting video-recordings of the speakers, so those of you who feel inclined will be able to experience the entire proceedings for yourselves.  There was plenty of food for thought, with presentations that included papers on the evolution of the roundhouse and changing settlement patterns within the Tyne-Forth region and beyond, with Rachael Pope and Strat Halliday proposing their views on long term change and questions of occupation versus abandonment in a Bronze Age/pre-Roman Iron Age context.

Highlights of the day were Alison Sheridan's engaging summary of the Neolithic in the Tyne-Forth region, and a fascinating paper by David Metcalfe on the different approaches to creating narrative used by archaeologists on the one hand and storytellers on the other. This latter paper was certainly a departure from the norm and, for someone who more often than not these days feels her allegiance pulled more to the world of creative writing than to archaeology, it was something I could really relate to. 

An honourable mention also goes to Kristian Pederson for his summary of the Palaeolithic (no, I'm not joking...) and Mesolithic in the Tyne-Forth region.  Back in the days when I studied at Uni, it was just assumed that prehistory began in the Mesolithic as far as Scotland was concerned, with any earlier periods of occupation erased by the last advance of the ice-sheets. It turns out, however, that people were hanging around right at the limits of the ice sheets in the immediate post-glacial period and that evidence of their activities can be found if you look hard enough, and deep enough, in the right places. 

A further honourable mention should be awarded to Jan Harding and Mark Lawson for their paper on the orientations of cup-and-ring radials and penannular motifs in Mid-Argyll and Northern Northumberland. Cup-and-ring markings never fail to fascinate, and it's a refreshing change to hear someone trying to actually ascribed meaning and context to the things.  Most of the time, they're just dismissed as 'ritual' and left neglected at the metaphorical back of the shelf...

Next week, I've got ANOTHER conference, so it's busy, busy, busy, I'm afraid!!!  Hope you're all keeping well - I shall catch up when I can!!
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Hot on the heels of Wayland's Smithy comes another chambered tomb now.  This time it's a bit closer to home - yes, at last J and myself managed to track down that elusive beast known as the Haylie Chambered Cairn, which lurks up on the raised beach behind Largs. 

This monument is also known as 'Haco's Tomb' - Haco being a reference to King Hakon, who led a band of Norsemen against the Scots in the Battle of Largs (1263). There are a few prehistoric monuments recorded around Largs: by the nineteenth century they'd earned a place in local folklore as burial markers for dead Vikings, or monuments set up to commemorate key sites in the battle.

They are, of course, several thousand years earlier than the battle itself.  The earliest of these monuments is undoubtedly this chambered cairn, which I've tried and failed to locate on a previous foray into Largs but which today I actually managed to track down!!

It was originally part of a much larger mound called 'Margaret's Law', but this has been largely removed over the past two hundred years leaving just this burial chamber ('Haco's Tomb') behind:-


Fans of Neolithic monuments please note that this particular example is not a representative of the Cotsworld-Severn group.  I cast a critical eye over it today, trying to figure out if it was a prime example of a Clyde-Carlingford, but since I couldn't see any sign of any overlapping side slabs, or any horizontal slabs subdividing the chamber ('septal slabs') I wasn't convinced:-


But according to the experts, the Haylie cairn is indeed an example of a Clyde-Carlingford, though sadly this chamber represents a much diminished remnant of what would originally have been a much bigger and more impressive monument.  Futher information is available, on both the monument itself and the results of the early excavations carried out here, in the RCAHMS' Canmore entry which I have linked to below:-


And because we were walking through Largs enjoying the prehistoric monuments, I just couldn't resist taking another picture of the Bronze Age standing stone that I featured in photos from my last visit to the town. Only this time it doesn't look quite so gloomy!

Oh, and as a postscript, gardeners amongst you will be delighted to hear that my ivy-leaved pelargonium 'Vectis Glitter' has now been dug up and brought in for the winter, so it will hopefully provide us with another year of productive blooming in 2013!

And the begonias are still hanging in there, stubborn as always... 
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And now, at last, I can present to you some photos of that most curious and enigmatic of prehistoric monuments: The Uffington White Horse!!

Which as monuments go isn't very photogenic, I'm afraid, unless you're in an aeroplace/helicopter/hot air balloon or UFO...

This is a very peculiar monument because, like the Nazca lines in Peru, it just doesn't seem to work on the ground.  I tried very hard to find a spot in the landscape where it looks imposing, emphatic and meaningful, but such a place eluded me.  It really seems to work best when you see it from the air...

Now recent research on the Nazca lines suggests that these figures were designed on such a vast scale so people could process along them, but this logic just doesn't seem to work for the Uffington White Horse. Firstly, it's too small, and secondly, its outline just doesn't seem to work that way.

The horse has been identified as a dog by some, but I'm unconvinced.  I'm going to throw my hat in with the horse theory, perhaps because I'm a horse-lover, and I WANT it to be a horse!  For years it was assumed to be Iron Age, but during recent restoration works, the lowest chalk surface was dated using some state of the art dating technique (I can't for the life of me remember the specifics, but it wasn't anything bog-standard like RC dating...) and it turns out that our equine (or canine?) friend goes right back to the Late Bronze Age.

That still doesn't help explain why it's here. It's been interpreted as a tribal emblem, but perhaps its odd location means that it wasn't primarily intended for the human eye.  Perhaps it was the making of the horse that was important, with the aim being to impress onlookers who 'resided' in the sky.  By this I am NOT referring to visiting aliens - what I envisage instead is that it was created for the eyes of gods, or even ancestors, who resided above as opposed to within the earth.  Perhaps the regular recutting of this horse was an integral part of its function: like other kinds of 'communal' monuments, such as the chambered tombs, henges and causewayed enclosures of the much-earlier Neolthic period, it was the making and the repeated maintenance of the monument which was key to its role in the landscape.

Here's a view of the horse from just above its head:-


It's a jolly-looking thing, which has evidently lost a bit of weight through the millenia. Prior to our visit, I was told by our hostess that if I stood on the eye and made a wish, it would come true.  Now, there's a plaintive notice located near the horse which asks visitors to respect the monument by NOT stepping on it, so being an individual who loves and respects the past in all its varied aspects, I decided that I wouldn't jump ignorantly all over the poor thing and ask it to grant me anything so banal as long life, endless good literary reviews and a best-selling first novel or whatever.

Instead, I just stepped back and wished fervently that it could still be here to enthrall and captivate its visitors for at least another three thousand years... 

Here's another view from the so-called 'Dragon's Mound', an odd little scarped tump in the landscape which has the character of a mini-Silbury Hill.  Now, if I was a Late Bronze Age person carrying out rituals of fertility, horse sacrifice or whatever (your guess is probably as good as mine!) this is the spot where I'd want to be able to stand and look upon an excellent view of the horse, because that way anyone watching me would know that I was the one in cahoots with the gods/ancestors, and therefore running the show.

But it's not a good view.  It's a really hopeless view, in fact:-


So our horse/dog remains an enigma, which is quite appropriate, considering that it bears a smile which in my view outperforms the Mona Lisa's.  It most certainly knows what's going on (though who's to say that its meaning remained constant??) but it sure as hell ain't telling. 

And if you ask me, that's a big part of its appeal: like the hoards of metalwork that litter our landscape, it just serves to remind us that the Late Bronze Age is most definitely a foreign country. They do things very differently there...

P.S.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the real thing, here's a link. Click upon it, and dare to tell me that you're not impressed!!

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Right.  Hot on the heels of Wayland's Smithy....

I was going to go completely off on a tangent and post about Boulton & Watt steam engines, but I thought instead that I'd continue the prehistoric Wessex theme and venture further along the Ridgeway to take in some more of the monuments near Wantage.

First on the list is Uffington Castle, which is of course a stone's throw from the Uffington White Horse (tomorrow!) and virtually impossible to photograph...

Yeah.  How on earth do you photograph a hillfort?  Unless you're in a hot air balloon or a light aircraft...

You can see it on the horizon here. The hilltop is surrounded by not one but two ramparts, and you can get some idea of the scale from here:-


These massive hillforts tend to be of Iron Age date, though they often have their origins in the Late Bronze Age.  Hillforts may be univallate (which means they have one ditch and rampart) or multivallate (they have two or three ditches and ramparts) - in Scotland, our forts tend to have stone ramparts, or timber-laced stone ramparts (we're not even getting onto the subject of vitrified forts yet..), but in this part of England, the ramparts are invariably earthen.  Please note that when it was first excavated, the rampart and ditch (dug in chalk) would have been brilliant, shining white against the landscape.

The ramparts are now much weathered, but they're still impressive:-



They're accessed at various points along their length by gaps in ditch and bank to allow entry:-


But how good were these monuments as defensive sites?  Well, against a gang of marauding young men from the neighbouring tribe, they probably performed quite adequately.  But against an organised military force, they weren't much good, as the evidence from Maiden Castle in Dorset can testify. Here, the Romans managed to annihilate those who took refuge there -  the native spears and slingshots being no match for the ballistas, onagers and other nasty things carried by the Roman army 

Perhaps their main function was as much to impress as to defend. The amount of labour required to build the things was incredible, and they certainly would have made A Grand Statement within the landscape.  You knew who was in charge, and he (or she...) lived here... 

Though in Britain they can't really be called towns as such, hillforts often contain large numbers of circular huts (roundhouses is the correct term, for the best of these circular structures were certainly NOT hovels!).  These monuments have also produced large numbers of 'four-posters' which have been interpreted as granaries.  Excavations have taken place at Danebury, not far from Uffington, and one of the more intriguing features encountered there was the vast quantity of large pits uncovered on the site.  At the time, these were dismissed as rubbish pits, but as one of the leading figures of Iron Age Studies, J D Hill, first pointed out, the contents of these 'rubbish pits' required rethinking.  I wrote an essay on the subject once, and I remember stumbling across several examples from Danebury which were positively weird. One pit had a complete horse skeleton with its head cut off and placed behind its back, while another contained a dismembered human pelvis, complete with cut marks.

Rubbish?  Or ritual??  That was the question J D Hill originally asked, and thirty years later, professional opinion has now veered towards the latter.  Our comfortable, happy Iron Age, peopled by friendly inoffensive farmers who put up a spirited resistance but ultimately got gubbed by those pesky Romans, was anything but comfortable and happy.  What with bog bodies from Cheshire and slave chains from Anglesey, the Iron Age is definitely a foreign country, and it's certainly one that had a dark, unwholesome aspect that we, in our pleasant modern world find difficult to deal with.

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Sorry, everyone.  The last couple of days I actually - gasp! -  had a SOCIAL life!!! 

Right, back to Cotswold-Severn tombs, and to our Tomb of The Day - Wayland's Smithy.

Wayland's Smithy and myself go back a long way. I was first introduced to this monument in 1989 when, as a bright-eyed and busy-tailed undergrad, I was fortunate enough to travel around Wessex on a brilliant field trip led by the inimitable John Barrett (author of Fragments of Antiquity - which is, incidentally, well worth a read...).  It was a whirlwind tour that included Stonehenge, Avebury, Uffington Castle, West Kennet, Danebury and much, much more, and it probably led to my long-standing love affair with prehistory...

Wayland's Smithy has been heavily restored following excavations, and it's an impressive-looking monument. Here's a view along the mound, which is nicely trapezoidal:-


But it's in the forecourt area that this monument is most impressive. There's a row of tall stones standing before the chamber (I'm not sure if there are additional chambers located along the length of the mound. There were none clearly apparent, but since I'm also not sure how much of this monument has actually been excavated, that doesn't mean there aren't more lurking...):-


The traditional view when I was a wee lass ( i.e. an undergraduate) was that these monuments formed communal repositories for the Neolithic dead. The monuments themelves require a cohesive community effort in their construction, and the bones held within were all found jumbled together, with no attempts made to keep individual body parts seperate. The standard interpretation was therefore that in death everyone was treated equally.

Hence, we have an egalitarian society operating in the Neolithic which can be contrasted with that operating in the Bronze Age, where the 'chieftains' are buried in isolated and prominent mounds, accompanied in death by rich objects like bronze daggers, gold earrings and beakers...

This view was being challenged at the time and these days the interpretation has changed. Even though these monuments give the impression that the dead are treated in the same manner, it seems likely that they are not representing the whole community. It's thought that corpses were left outside in excarnation enclosures to be defleshed by natural agents like carrion birds and foxes. Once they'd been reduced to their skeletons, a selected few would be gathered together and returned to the community where they functioned as 'ancestors'. 

Following this thinking, we can see these monuments as a store of ancestral power within the community. The ancestors give their descendants a legitimate claim to the landscape, and being portable relics, their remains can be carried through the landscape. You can, for example, envisage the bones of the ancestors being carried amongst the living in processions carried out at key points in the agricultural cycle, and it may be the case that the avenues at Avebury and Stonehenge have their roots in similar practices.

Though the ancestors became anonymous and equal, it doesn't mean that the living modelled their society in a similar fashion.  A view of the forecourt and chamber area at Wayland's Smithy demonstrates how small the chamber is - you can envisage that during those rituals and ceremonies which involved the ancestors, only a select few would be granted the privilege of interacting with the dead, while the rest of the community looked on:-


At a later point in the history of this monument, the entry to the chamber has been blocked, which means that access to ancestral remains must have been made difficult, if well nigh impossible.  Similarly blocking is seen at West Kennet, and it may well signify that the original role of the monument had ceased, and that the veneration of the ancestors was being replaced by something else (or perhaps the ancestors were being celebrated in a more metaphorical sense, with the standing stones of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition being stone representations of ancestral figures.  Your guess is probably as good as mine (with sufficient evidence to support it, that is!!))


Here's a close-up of the chamber, with its drystone-walled passage (oh, how Cotswold-Severn is that!!).  As a neat way of demonstrating how these ancient Neolithic monuments continue to be appropriated into the present, when we visited the site we saw a) a small shred of cloth tied onto a nearby branch, and b) a couple of strings of beads and a small ceramic cat placed carefully as a votive deposit within the main chamber.


Yes, it's a definite example of that classic line from Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore: 'I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are...'

[And may I recommend as further reading 'Fragments of Antiquity by John Barrett, Bronze Age Britain by Michael Parker Pearson (Batsford) and/or The Tomb Builders by Steve Burrow.]
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I promised you a post on Cotswold-Severn - instead, this is going to be a post in two halves.  Or rather, we'll be having the main course later, with the 'horses-doovers' coming tonight.  Okay, so it's a bit unfair to describe poor old Nympfield Long Barrow as the 'hors-douvres', but when it's up against the one and only Wayland's Smithy, it's facing pretty stiff competition, believe me....


Nympsfield Long Barrow, located just south of Cirencester, is our first example of the so-called 'Cotswold-Severn' tradition, a form of burial mound constructed in the Neolithic period, between 4000 and 3000 BC (i.e. predating the Egyptian pyramids...)

Several regional traditions of long barrow/cairn have been identified within the British Isles (N.B. the term 'barrow' is used when the mound material is predominantly earth, and 'cairn' when it's stone). the Cotswold-Severn tombs are concentrated around Gloucestershire, but similar examples have been identified from Wales to Scotland (according to tonight's source literature, the Scots long-cairn type known as the 'Clyde-Carlingford' is a subdivision of the Cotswold-Severn, which is news to me, but hey ho, I'm just a Bronze Age scholar, so what do I know!).

Cotswold-Severn tombs are identified by their trapezoidal mounds, poorly preserved in this example, and shown as a very slight rise in the ground in the photograph below:-


At the front of the monument, there is a forecourt area, sometimes emphasised by upright stones, and often defined by a stretch of drystone walling. Sometimes this forecourt is defined on either side by the edges of the mound, which extend forward as 'horns':-


Located within the mound there will be one or more stone- built chambers. Often there's one located at the front and accessed through the forecourt, but sometimes there are secondary chambers located further back along the mound:-


Obviously, it's used for burying the Neolithic dead, but the actual nature of the funerary rituals is much more difficult to interpret. And that's what we'll be talking about in my next post.

And acknowledgements for today's post must go to The Tomb Builders in Wales 4000-3000BC by Steve Burrow (National Museum of Wales Books, 2006). Which is a book that should really be on the shelves of anyone who has even a passing interest in matters Neolithic or megalithic.  And which has now been followed up by a lovely companion volume on the Bronze Age, called Shadowlands, which is a book I'm really keen to get hold of...

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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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It's that time of year again - we're starting to plan our British holiday for later in the year.

At the moment, it's a toss-up between Wantage, Abingdon and Cirencester...

With the focus on Uffington, Wayland's Smithy and various other things.  Yeah, there's going to be a bit of a prehistoric theme here, for once...

Thanks, [livejournal.com profile] inzilbeth_liz, for giving me the inspiration to actually start progressing this one...
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It's over.  The next installment of the Grand Tour has been and gone, I have returned, etcetera.

Carcassone certainly lived up to expectations.  I'd wanted to see it ever since I saw the walled city featured in a Tour de France stage, and though it did bear more than a fleeting resemblance to Lord Farquhar's place in Shrek, it was well worth a detailed exploration.  Its critics may deride it as a tourist trap and a medieval theme park, but there's more to the place than meets the eye, I'm pleased to say.

The highpoints of the holiday?  Apart from the monuments, that is...  Well, the French people themselves were great - very kind, very hospitable and remarkably tolerant of my ham-fisted attempts to murder their language.  The food deserves a special mention, too, especially the pastries, the crepes, and the ice cream.  Faced with a seemingly endless supply of French onion soup, pizzas (often with added goats' cheese, which my system just can't handle...) and omelettes, I baled out of my regular vegetarian diet virtually immediately, I regret to say.  The ducks of Languedoc will hate me for partaking of the famous cassoulet, but when in France, do what the French do, I suppose...

And the drawbacks?  The dog poo.  Definitely the dog poo.  Dog poo EVERYWHERE.  Closely followed by the toilets, which weren't the greatest (though these were nothing compared to toilets which stalked my childhood nightmares of French holidays, comprising nothing more than a ceramic tray with a hole in the floor.  SHUDDER!!).  And coming in a close third were the motorists, who were even more idiotic and insane than the ones back home.

Once again, I have done my utmost to seek out the best of what the area has to offer in terms of ancient buildings, monuments, and to take copious photographs for your delectation.  Since I have some grasp of the lingo (albeit a pathetic one!) I've been able to travel off the beaten track to some degree, so I hope I'll be able to give you an insight into the less well-known sites and monuments.  The quality of the built heritage was incredible.  In my week-and-a-bit trip, I managed to tick off the following:-
1 medieval walled city
5 fortified towns/villages
At least 13 cathedrals/abbeys/churches/chapels etc. (I lost count!!)
8 medieval castles
Lots and lots of carved stones - Roman & medieval.
A canal
And a Neolithic earthen long barrow.

We also visited a rather spectacular cave, which I think I can safely describe as another site because it produced finds of Late Bronze Age metalwork...

Anyway, I suppose it's my duty to give out the regular endlessrarities heritage awards.  The top three choices were really, really, really difficult, because everything I visited was utterly spectacular, and I was pleasantly surprised (if not astounded!) by what I saw at every turn.  But here we go:-

1) In first place, the medieval walled city of Carcassone.  Why?  Because it's just so big, so vast, and as much a testament to the ambitions of the 19th century antiquarian who made its reconstruction his lifelong goal as it is a reflection of Cathar and French architecture. 

2) The painted medieval ceilings of Lagrasse.  And in fact the painted medieval ceilings, full stop.  Because they appear to be everywhere.

3) The abbey of San-Papoul.  Which was full of magnificent in situ Romanesque carvings. I've had to tie this particular monument with the abbey of Lagrasse, which has a beautifully preserved medieval chapel, complete with tiled floor and painted walls.  I was completely bowled over by both...

Honourable Mentions must go to the castles of Lastours, the abbey of Villalangue, the basilica of Saint Nazaire in Carcassone and Narbonne Cathedral and Bishop's Palace.  With a special award for The Most Seriously Whacky Spaced Out Heritage Exhibition Ever Encountered By This Author going to the Lapidiary Museum in Narbonne for a display and associated sons-et-lumiere show which had me completely bamboozled.  Put it this way: the only other instance where I've felt so completely disorientated was climbing the stairs the Leaning Tower of Pisa...

Anyway, it will be my great delight to share my adventures with you all in the weeks that follows.  In the meantime, here are some pictures of the medieval city of Carcassone to whet your appetites:-


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