Tag Archives: dolmen

Dolmen des Fades

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.

Folklore

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.

Further reading

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

http://www.cathares.org/pepieux-minervois-intro.html

http://ma.thevenin.over-blog.com/

http://www.marie-pepieux.fr/dolmen.html

http://www.midi-france.info/list_dolmens.htm

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Tinkinswood & St Lythans

Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC

I was in Cardiff this weekend for the Europa Conference on People, place and time in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe and took the opportunity to visit two burial chambers I had been wanting to see for some time, Tinkinswood and St Lythans.  They are about two and a half miles apart and easily accessed from Duffryn Lane not far from St Nicholas, six miles west of Cardiff ( OS map references ST 092733 and ST 100722, respectively).

 

DSC09158

Both monuments are managed by Cadw and have rather fun wind-up interpretative audio guide units on site that give a decent background summary in a choice of Welsh and English covering the topics The Neolithic Period, The Tomb Builders, Building a Tomb and Explore and More. Be warned though: the audio content is much the same at both sites with just a few subtle detail differences in the second topic.

The archaeology bit

Tinkinswood

Tinkinswood burial chamber

Tinkinswood was constructed in the early Neolithic period around 6000 years ago and when it was excavated in 1914 it was found to hold the remains of more than 50 people along with pottery fragments and worked flint.  The capstone (more of which in a moment) weighs around 40 tons, which is around the same as an articulated lorry, apparently.  It poured with rain during my visit and naturally I sought shelter within the chamber which gave me chance to marvel at the vast roof and how it could have been raised into its position all those years ago without the help of modern machinery – and to be grateful that after the excavations a supporting pillar was added.   At that time also the outside walls were re-clad in a herringbone style which I also saw a few weeks ago at Stoney Littleton (see previous entry).  Outside the chamber is a stone-lined pit, the function of which is unknown although it has been suggested that bodies were collected or processed there, perhaps excarnated (defleshed), prior to deposition in the chamber itself.

St Lythans

St Lythans burial chamber

I found St Lythans to be the more photogenic of the two monuments although it was challenging in the heavy downpour that persisted pretty much until I left.  It is known locally as Gwal-y-filiast which translates rather wonderfully as ‘the kennel of the greyhound bitch’ and it does have a bit of a doghouse-like feel to it.  In fact, in the 19th century it was used as an animal shelter and I can testify that it was quite fitting as a human shelter on the day of my visit.  The chamber, which also dates back to the early Neolithic, is only a small part of the original monument, some of the remainder of which is just visible from the gate to the field and apparently measures around 24 metres long by 11 metres wide.  The capstone here weighs 35 tons and the chamber as a whole has a pleasing dolmen appearance even though it would originally probably have looked more like the earthen-clad Tinkinswood tomb. Similarly, human remains and pottery were recovered from the site during antiquarian investigations.  Whereas Tinkinswood is situated on a level and fairly unobtrusive location within the present day landscape, St Lythans is more impressively and visibly located on a hill top and its lack of mound has the effect of making it stand out all the more.

Returning to the capstones and the Europa conference, a project is currently under way by Dr Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire with Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester looking into Building the Great Dolmens of Britain and Ireland.  It seems that a dolmen can be defined as ‘a careful way of displaying a big stone in a distinctive way’ that ‘sometimes also creates a burial space’ and one thing that has been found in sites investigated so far is that the capstones may have originated at the location of the dolmen and been raised above supporting stones in situ rather than being transported in from elsewhere. Examples of this are Pentre Ifan and Carreg Samson in Pembrokeshire which, when excavated, were found to lie within big pits thought to have been the original location of their capstones.  As well as in west Wales there are concentrations of dolmen in Cornwall and much of Ireland and it will be very interesting to see how this research pans out particularly in terms of the potential interpretations concerning the significance of special locations and monuments in the Neolithic.

Folklore

As the rain was setting in at Tinkinswood I did wonder if I would end up having to spend the night there.  Had I done so and it had been the night preceding May Day, St John’s Day or Midwinter Day, according to folklore, I would have either died, gone raving mad or become a poet.  Also, had I danced there on the Sabbath, I could have ended up being turned to stone like the other poor women who now stand silently as boulders south of the tomb.  At St Lythans meanwhile it is said that the field it inhabits is cursed and nothing grows there (this certainly doesn’t affect the grass however which was knee-high and thriving when I visited). Had I visited on Halloween I could have wished for anything and had it granted by the stones so I must remember to return on 31 October to do that. Meanwhile on Midsummer’s Eve the capstone is said to spin three times, which I would love to see.  This is my favourite bit of folklore for St Lythans, another Welsh name for which is Maes-y-Felin which translates as ‘The Mill in the Meadow’.

References

http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/stlythansburialchamber

http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/tinkinswoodburialchamber

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized