Tourist brochures portray the south of France as an idyll: fields of lavender, bucolic rows of vines and timeless villages of golden stone. In reality, it is also the land of the super-fast train, the TGV, of expanding airports and hypermarkets, hi-tech industrial parks and immigration; more J.G. Ballard than Peter Mayle. Lots of development means lots of rescue archaeology – or archéologie préventive. Thanks to such excavations, our knowledge of archaeology in the South of France has been catapulted forward.
Moreover, in the past archaeologists tended to focus on the more obvious remains: prehistoric caves, megalithic tombs and the many impressive Roman monuments. Now, thanks to developer-funded rescue archaeology, a more rounded picture is emerging of settlements, fields and burials of all periods. In response to the demand for excavation teams, Oxford Archaeology, Britain’s largest independent archaeological unit, has recently opened an office near Montpellier under the name OA Méditerrannée. Already they have unearthed important discoveries in the village of Langlade, near Nîmes.
Langlade nestles below a limestone slope, looking northwards over the plain of the Vaunage. Just outside the historic village, the local authority has designated a strip of land at the foot of the escarpment for new housing. Two spectacular oppida (late prehistoric defended enclosures) dominate the hills behind Langlade, and there have been numerous other prehistoric and Gallo-Roman finds in the area. Owing to the wealth of local material, the state rescue-archaeology service – Inrap – was brought in to carry out an initial archaeological evaluation of the Langlade site.
Inrap’s team located the foundations of stone buildings and OA Méditerranée was commissioned to carry out a full-scale investigation. The site looked promising. However, once cleared of overburden it proved to be even more exciting than expected: thus we uncovered a 3rd millennium Neolithic/Chalcolithic (Copper-Age) walled settlement with remarkable stone buildings, a Gallo-Roman mausoleum, and a 4th-6th century AD cemetery. In addition, the northern half of the site was unusually well-preserved because late prehistoric agricultural terracing had caused a protective build up of a deep bank of earth which effectively blanketed the remains.
The Fontbouïsse culture exposed
The earliest evidence we uncovered at Langlade was a Neolithic/Copper-Age walled site belonging to the Fontbouïsse culture. The region also contains numerous cave sites, some with large Fontbouïsse jars, possibly for storing water. There are burials in rock-cut tombs, dolmens and stone-lined graves, and archaeologists have also excavated ancient flint mines not far from Langlade. Further afield, copper mines and metal working sites are known.
The above Fontbouïsse walled settlement was dominated by large, stone-based, sub-rectangular buildings, orientated roughly north-south. Corridors linked each of these buildings to the so-called ‘towers’ of the site’s enclosing wall. Smaller, horse-shoe shaped buildings were built against the large sub-rectangular structures. The larger buildings were typical of the Fontbouïsse vernacular, with rounded ends and straight sides. Where they were best preserved – under the terrace – the stone walls reached about 1m in height.
Although the southern ends were damaged, it seems that these buildings would have been about 12m in length and 5m wide. A scattering of thin stone slabs or lauzes suggests that the roofs were tiled. A row of stone-packed post-holes running along the centre of the large buildings probably held the posts which supported roof beams, though a shortage of long timbers on the garrigue (the dry scrubland of the uplands) may explain the narrowness of the buildings.
The houses at Langlade and other Fontbouïsse sites are rich in artefacts and, where their distribution has been plotted, such as at Conquette, it is possible to identify areas which were used for storage, cooking, eating, craft activities and sleeping. Within the Langlade houses, the archaeologists found complete pots that had been smashed in-situ when the roofs collapsed. Flint tools, flakes and animal bones also littered the floor.
Some of the houses contained hearths and, unusually, traces of internal partitions began to appear.The analysis of the finds has only just begun, but it should throw new light on activities in both the big houses and their annexes. It seems that the site was abandoned by 2000 BC, and quite likely some centuries before that, since the post-abandonment levels contain many sherds of Beaker ware, of a type used before 2000 BC.
This site is not just interesting because it provides insights on the past lives of the locals, but also because it changes our understanding of the archaeology of this region around Nîmes. Most of the well-known Fontbouïsse settlements lie much further west, in the Herault region, north of Montpellier.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 31. Click here to subscribe