On a recent spring afternoon, we visited the site of the Oppidum of Ensérune, not far from Béziers and the Mediterranean. A delightful knowledgeable young woman, Bérengère, guided us around the site.
We learned that an
oppidum, of which there are many in Europe, is an elevated fortified settlement.
Pre-Roman Gauls established this oppidum around the 6th century BCE. Presumably its elevation, with outstanding defensive views, encouraged its habitation. At first, the settlement was only a collection of a few circular mud huts, roofed with thatch. As the centuries passed, the population slowly grew, and the organization of the settlement became more ordered. Once the Romans arrived and conquered this region, the town grew to have a population of about 4,000 people. Roman construction and infrastructure techniques appeared on top of the earlier Gallic town.
In the first century AD, the inhabitants abandoned the oppidum. The reasons include a lack of easily accessible water, the establishment of the
Pax Romana (the extended period of peace in which defensive positions became much less relevant), and the development of the major trading city and harbor of Narbo Martius (modern Narbonne) a few kilometers away.
Only a small part of the site has been excavated. The last archeological work occurred in 1967. Our guide related that the funding is not available for new excavations, and that some people think that archeologists will only find more of the same. However, archeological technology has greatly advanced in the last 50 years. It is enticing to contemplate what lies beneath the surface, just waiting for discovery.
The stone walls are remains of houses, workshops, and storage structures. A street runs along the fortified hillside.
In Gallic times, forests and fields of grain lay below the oppidum. There were other settlements throughout the region even at the time of the establishment of this oppidum. The next settlements may have been only as close as 30 kilometers away. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence of a rich and far-ranging trading culture: trade in grains, wine, pottery and slaves.
These runes are contemporary and temporary works of art. The artist has built the shapes with red volcanic gravel. These forms come from the ancient Iberian alphabet, the meanings of which remain unknown today. Compared with the yellow circles that currently reside on La Cité in Carcassonne (see an earlier post for more details and opinion!), we find this public art more successful and engaging. The intervention, while obviously modern, finds its inspiration in the specific history of this place. Artifacts from this oppidum include Iberian inscriptions. The alphabet speaks to the ancient trade of things and ideas in the Mediterranean, and to mysteries of history that may never be revealed.
Linguists and historians have developed an understanding of the phonetic values of the symbols, but not the meaning of words built from them. No one has yet found the Rosetta Stone for the Iberian alphabet.
The gap between the stone to the right of the upright stone is the start of steps that lead down the steep hill to a water source below. Almost all of the fresh water for the inhabitants of the oppidum had to be brought up the hill. This was the responsibility of the women and children. The line of stones to the left, closest to us, is the remains of a Roman sewer. The good news is that the Romans covered the open sewers in the streets and directed the waste away from the oppidum. The bad news is that the discharge was above the route down to the spring.
This is a Roman-era communal cistern. You can see a supply course cut from rock in the upper right. The pier in the middle helped support a stone cover. The Romans brought the technology of a kind of cement plaster with which to make the cistern water-tight. You can see remains of some of this plaster in the left of the image.
In Gallic times, the inhabitants used underground silos for storage of grain. The modern grating in the image covers one of these silos. The silo is a hole carved out of solid rock, usually 3 – 4 meters deep, and large enough for a person to enter via a ladder. The practice was to bring grain up from the fields and place it in the silo. The person responsible would cover the opening with the round stone, sealing it with wet clay. Once dried, the clay and stone cap protected the grain from spoilage and vermin. When it was time to retrieve the stored grain, the seal was broken. All the grain needed to be used right away before spoilage set in.
The site is filled with silos. Some are within individual houses. Some, like these, lie in communal fields. The roof covers the remains of a Roman house, including some basic black-and-white stone mosaics. The Romans abandoned this oppidum before the development and spread of the colorful and elaborate mosaics like those in Pompei.
The Romans introduced amphorae and other Mediterranean ceramics. They replaced the stone silos with ceramic storage vessels.
Many ceramic vessels include unique stamps. These may have indicated the creator of the vessel, the owner, or the nature of its use.
The first excavations of the oppidum, in the 19th century, were essentially treasure hunts. People dug up tombs and graves, looking for gold and valuable artifacts. Unfortunately, while the objects continue to be attractive, the unscientific and haphazard excavation erased context and meaning from the artifacts. Later, 20th century archeological excavations used modern, careful techniques. The objects in this display case all come from a single tomb. Given the metal armaments and the impressive Greek urn, it is likely that this person was an important warrior. The urn held the cremated remains of the warrior. Prosperous residents of the oppidum imported high-quality Greek urns specifically for burial of their remains.
This is the remains of a sword and its sheath. The weapon was buried with the ashes of the warrior, but it was mangled so that no one else could ever use it.
While we saw many large amphorae and vessels — for trade, storage and burial — these are tiny containers, only a few centimeters tall. These ceramics held perfumes, made from olive oil and botanicals. Our guide said that these are evidence of the cleanliness and refinement of the later inhabitants. Or were perfumes needed to mask other more earthy aromas?