Neolithic 3500 BC -> 2000 BC
As I was in France I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity of paying a visit to at least one prehistoric site in the area (it would have been more had it not been for my reluctant teenage companions). Dolmen des Fades or (Dolmen Pepieux-Minervois) is located in the Pyrenees-Orientales department within the beautiful Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. The nearest village is Pepieux which is situated between the cities of Carcassonne and Narbonne. The dolmen is surprisingly easy to find, not far south of the D52 just off the D168 west of Siran and itemised on Google Maps. 11700 Pepieux, France.
The landscape of the Aude valley approaching the dolmen is flat and wide and then, quite unexpectedly, a pine-clad hillock appears and it becomes clear that this is where the monument is located. In this area dominated by Mediaeval remains megalithic monuments are often ignored and, despite their classified status, they are not guaranteed a mention in guidebooks or even a signpost to highlight their location. Fortunately, in this case, there is a sign saying ‘Dolmen’ on the D168 pointing to the little track to the base of the hillock from which you can see the dolmen nestling enticingly amongst the trees on top. There are two further signs here, one pointing left that says ‘Point Information’ and one to a path on the right saying ‘Dolmen’. The Point Information is a replica dolmen cut into the bank, which I thought was a really nice touch. Unfortunately, though, the walls inside are completely bare and therefore the only information currently available to visitors is the sign giving the name of monument and its date of construction and another, slightly more verbose, laminated sign attached to a tree. I hope this is only a temporary situation and that the wall space will soon be utilised to its full potential as I feel, with a little imagination, it could become a fantastic interpretation tool and really bring the visitor experience to life. My translation of the sign on the tree is summarised in the archaeology bit below. Meanwhile there is, I understand, a sign in Pepieux giving a little more contextual information about the site and also a reconstruction of the dolmen itself in the centre of a roundabout, but this is obviously only of benefit to visitors who, unlike me, go to the village rather than just to the site itself.
The archaeology bit
Despite their comparatively low profile in the region there are actually more than two thousand megalithic monuments in Languedoc-Roussillon, more than in the whole of the United Kingdom. The Dolmen des Fades is the biggest passage tomb in the whole of southern France. It is 24 metres long, the extent of its earthen mound measuring 35 metres, and has a maximum height of 2.5 metres. The passage (or couloir) measures 12 metres long in total and encompasses a 6 metre anteroom with massive facing pillars on either side lengthwise, alternating with dry stone walling, and culminates in an end chamber terminated by thick stone slabs. The antechamber is topped by the original, surviving capstone which weighs a hefty 25-30 tonnes. It is made of limestone which was probably sourced and hence transported from three kilometres away while the rest of the structure comprises red and grey sandstone which would have been available in the locality. The portal slabs on either side of the antechamber have large, skilfully cut-through semi-ovoid holes within them forming striking doorways between the chambers.
The dolmen was built between 3500 and 2000 BC during the late Neolithic by the Veraza people who inhabited the region and there is evidence of its use having continued through the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age and into the early Bronze Age. Human remains, pottery and carved stone have apparently been found there.
According to the aforementioned laminated sign, in the early twentieth century the dolmen was originally visible only as the capstone and partially exposed supporting pillars. In 1946 Odette and Jean Taffanel, a pair of local antiquarians, conducted excavations which revealed the rest of the structure of the passage tomb. Between 1962 and 1965 a rescue operation was conducted under the direction of Jean Guilaine, currently an honorary professor of archaeology at the College of France, primarily to make safe the capstone, and twenty five years later further reconstruction work was undertaken, again under the direction of Professor Guilaine, to bring the dolmen closer to its original form, which is as we see it today.
The Dolmen des Fades is also variously known as the Dolmen du Coteau de Fees and the Dolmen des Fees, all essentially meaning ‘The Dolmen of the Fairies’. Indeed the hillock itself is known as Moural de Fado meaning ‘The Fairies’ Hillock’. It is easy to see why this impressive, ancient structure on a little lone hill in a valley would inspire beliefs about fairies and magical things. Talking of which, there were a few large, cocoon-type creations on sticks with stone weights attached to them lying around beside the dolmen. It turns out these form a land art installation called Stone Moon created by Ma Thevenin, a local visual artist, as part of a heritage initiative in the area which includes several other sites. The opening evening earlier this month, at which the cocoons were suspended above the dolmen and illuminated, included a guided tour by the curator from the nearby Olonzac Archaeological Museum, an acoustic musical performance and, bien sur, was rounded off with a wine tasting.
Marc, Bruno 2000 Dolmens et menhirs en Languedoc et Roussillon, Nouvelle Presses du Languedoc (out of print)
Sicard, Germain 1966 The Prehistoric Aude: monumnets and discoveries, caves, dolmens, menhirs, Republished Editions Belisane