Saturday, April 17, 2010

Secrets of the Oppidum

Ab la dolchor del temps novel foillo li bosc, e li aucel chanton, chascus en lor lati, segon lo vers del novel chan...

( 'In the sweetness of the new season the woods turn green and the birds sing, each one in its own language, following the measure of the new song...' )

  • Guilhelm IX ( 1071 -1126 )

Spring is coming to the high pastures of the Ariege in a riotous spray of wild flowers and bit by bit the pog of Montsegur is starting to yield up its secrets. We've been spending much of our time since the thaw following up on the voluminous textural and archaeological leads amassed during the course of the long, Pyrenean winter. Some of the geographic locations mentioned in the various tomes, treatises and oral accounts that have come to our attention since setting up our base of operations in the Zone have proved to be easier to find than others. All too often dearly cherished myths and theories have faded into the ether like the vanishing snows as the facts on the ground have shown them to either be highly imaginative or simply not true.

A return visit to the Reboulet revealed that some of the ruined cottages that we had come across earlier ( * see 'The Hole of the Crows – Dec 2009 ) had been abandoned as recently as World War II, when they'd apparently served as a base for Catalan freedom fighters who used this isolated, densely wooded valley as a mustering point for raids across the border into occupied Spain. The German soldiers who had been dispatched to Montsegur during the war came to this area to clear out the partisans rather than take part in some clandestine treasure hunt as has been suggested by certain pseudo-historians. Either way no one around here likes to talk about it much. The German-Jewish folklorist and all-round pagan imperialist Otto Rahn, whose work did so much to draw the wider world's attention to the tragic history of the castle and the ongoing mystery surrounding it, didn't join the ranks of the SS until long after he had left the Languedoc and with Colonel Howard Buchner's engaging yarn about Otto Skorzeny retrieving the 'treasure of the ages' from a cave on the pog ( * see 'Emerald Cup, Ark of Gold', Thunderbird Press, 1991 ) revealed to be little more than a latter day shaggy dog story there would seem to be little or no surviving evidence to suggest that the Nazi high command were ever particularly interested in Montsegur, let alone that they deployed troops to the area as part of a bona fide attempt to retrieve some lost sacred power object, appealing as this idea may seem to our pulp sensibilities.

Montsegur - Friday April 9 2010

This isn't to say that the mountain doesn't hold it's fair share of secrets, but the nature of what may or may not be hidden here, remains open to speculation. Thus far our efforts to find the mythical entrances to the underground galleries have proven fruitless. Either they turn out to be shallow depressions or else Micheu Pierre was right in saying that as soon as you talk about them, they close up and switch their locations. ( * see 'Hunting for the Cosmic Egg – April 2010 ) We did however, come across further vestiges of 12th century habitation during our recent excursions to the relatively inaccessible eastern flank of the pog. We're currently awaiting the arrival of two more Irregulars this week before beginning a more thorough sweep of the surrounding cliffs.

As above, so below: Signs of life on the pog's east slope
Over the last few months we have tried in vain to find the elusive 'oppidum de Mayne' in the forests of Belesta. This morning with the aid of two born and bred Montsegurian's we finally achieved our goal. The 'oppidum' isn't marked on any map. There is no path or marked trail, and the only directions to go on were that it was 'somewhere above Fontestorbes, near the bridge of the prince'.

And just what is an 'oppidum', you may ask ? Julius Caesar described the larger Celtic Iron Age settlements he encountered in Gaul as oppida, and the term is now widely used to describe the pre-Roman towns that existed all across Western and Central Europe. Many 'oppida' grew from hill forts and their main features would seem to be the architectural construction of their walls and gates and their locations on hilltops commanding a convenient view of the surrounding area.
As above, so below: Fontestorbes - March 2010

The rocky outcrop above the fountain of Fontestorbes was probably occupied by prehistoric tribes since at least the Bronze Age. The name Belesta may well derive from either the Ibero-Celtic moon goddess, Belisenna or her male counterpart, Belenos and it would seem likely that the spring's phreatic source has been linked to worship of the Great Mother since time out of mind, redolent as it is of the earth's natural reproductive cycles. The spring was certainly already known as a place of worship in Roman times. The Gauls crossed the mountains via the old road over the Pic de Soularac to meet with traders from the Mediterranean, exchanging iron for pottery and other chattels. Pliny the Elder comments on the curious phenomena of Fontestorbe's intermittent source in his 'Natural History' and Popee, the wife of Nero, halted to drink at the spring before continuing on her way to take the waters at Ax's thermal baths. According to legend faeries inhabited the cave and washed their linen in it's cold clear waters. To this day, the phreatic source remains active from July to October with it's flow varying from between 20 litres per second to 1800 litres per second.
Recently the source has been all but destroyed by attempts at commercializing the site. Huge boulders have come tumbling down the hillside, smashing into the newly widened car park, as if the mountain itself is enraged at the intrusion of concrete and steel. Mayhap it's merely echoing the history of resistance that has always been so pronounced in this neck of the woods. Prior to the onset of the Albigensian Crusade, the area was the fiefdom of the Belissen family who were closely allied to the Count's of Foix and the defenders of Montsegur, the so-called 'sons and daughters of Belisenna'. The Treaty of Paris (1229) ceded the territory to Guy de Levis after the 'fields of Belissen' were captured by Simon de Montfort and the castle of Pechafilou was in turn donated by the Barons de Levis-Leran to one Gaston de Monstron in exchange for a pair of gloves. In 1522, the Protestants of Leran, led by the country houses of Peyrat and Limbrassic, rose up against their Catholic masters, burning the church of “the valley of love”. Catholic worship was completely prohibited in the area between the years 1559 and 1599 by order of the chief of the Huguenots although it has since made a cautious resurgence.

The spur above the source was first excavated by J. Louis Hygounnet, Guy Rancoule and Jean Tricoire who published a report on the area in the 1948 dispatch of the 'Bulletin of the Prehistoric Company of the Ariege'. They apparently unearthed dozens of coins and metal objects ( above ) as well as shards of pottery dating back as far as the third century B.C although typically much of the haul seems to have fallen into private hands. The site itself was subsequently left to languish, all but vanishing from mortal ken. Until today...

Saturday April 17

We set out at an ungodly hour after yet another late night. The early morning was cold and clear with temperatures in the shade a little over one degree Celsius. Miss Scarlett and myself blanched a little when we realized we were heading up the same, seemingly dead end trail as before but our Montsegurian friend's innate sense of direction and cool demeanour gave us hope that this time our efforts might not be in vain. When we took this path before, we hewed to the left towards an outcrop known as the 'Rock of Mayne' finding only bear spoor and the severed leg of an ibex before turning back. ( * see previous 'blog entry ) The terrain had simply been too icy and inhospitable for us to have any other choice.

As above, so below: Spot the film maker
This time, however, we followed a faint trail to the right, that threaded its way through the under brush, before winding up the neighbouring hillside. To be honest it felt more like an animal trail, but as we neared the summit we discovered that the hilltop was quite flat.

As above, so below: Getting warmer...

It didn't take more than a minute to come across the first pieces of old pottery that still lay half hidden in the loamy soil as they had for the last couple of thousand years.

As above, so below: The Oppidum of Mayne
Searching around through this wild place, we found dry stone walls and further evidence of terracing. Like any 'oppidum' worth its salt the view from the overgrown summit still commanded an impressive 360 degree view of the surrounding valleys.

For a moment words failed us as we stood silently gripped by the sensation of proximity to another time and another world...

As above, so below: Raiders of the lost Oppidum

It is amazing how much prehistory is still hidden in these hills and just how many sites of ancient worship seemingly dedicated to the same undying deities, the same immortal beauty...

Above: Roman coin depicting the Goddess Minerva
Below: Early 13th century nail from the pog of Montsegur

After starting the season with a few near misses it was reassuring to finally hit a home run and that despite all the misinformation out there some of the old yarns still hold true. For the moment we are back at the foot of the great narrative tree once more from which this story can go anywhere.

The key to the treasure is the treasure after all....

To be continued.

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