Last weekend, we took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to try out a new walk around Limogne. This small town in the Lot is host to a busy Sunday market and a Friday truffle market in season. It sits in the middle of the causse, or plateau, that bears its name. Plenty of evidence of our distant ancestors’ presence exists in the fields and woodland around the town, and I particularly wanted to see this.
A plethora of dolmens
Limogne boasts no less than 13 known dolmens, megalithic tombs, in the commune. I say “known”, because it’s very likely that others were destroyed by erosion or farming or were pillaged for stone over the years.
The Lot Département has the third highest concentration of dolmens in France, after Aveyron and Ariège. Around 800 have been recorded altogether, mostly located on the eastern side of the département.
These mysterious, and often massive, monuments date from the early Neolithic period, 4000-3000 BC. Some date back further than that. They are evidence of the gradual abandonment of hunter-gathering by nomadic peoples in favour of settling in small, stable communities to grow crops.
Excavations have discovered up to 100 bodies in these collective tombs, which were in use for several centuries. Grave goods found include necklaces made of bone beads, buttons and tools and weapons in stone, or bronze and copper in the later period.
The walk we chose is around 8 kilometres and offers the opportunity to see three impressive dolmens, which are well waymarked. We walked along broad tracks bordered by drystone walls in sparse woodland, accompanied by birdsong and jewel-like butterflies. Someone is restoring the walls and other familiar rural structures, including enclosures and cazelles (shepherds’ huts incorporated into the walls).
Dolmen No. 1 is le dolmen du Joncas. It emerges from its still-visible tumulus – more about those below. Part of the capstone, or table, has split and sheared off some time ago.
From there, we made our way via the hamlet of Ferrières to Dolmen No 2. This is reached by a path that is a 1 km detour from the route of the walk. It’s well worth it, though. The path makes a sharp right, and you are confronted by this gigantic structure in the middle of a field.
The SF, who likes doing this sort of thing, calculated the capstone must weigh around 27 tonnes. How did prehistoric humans manage to raise such a monster without modern technology? Find out at Dolmen No. 3.
In the meantime, we retraced our steps through Ferrières, stopping to exchange a few words with some other walkers about the weather.
Across the main road between Villefranche and Cahors, and an uphill path led us to the Lac d’Aurié. More like a small pond, really, but man-made to collect water on the dry causse. Dolmen No. 3 takes its name from this lake.
I’ve visited le dolmen du Lac d’Aurié before on an abortive trip to the Limogne truffle market. This one is the most accessible from Limogne itself. It’s topped with another huge capstone, estimated to weigh around 17 tonnes. Legend has it that this stone was excavated from the bottom of the lake and then brought several hundred metres to the site on rollers made of tree trunks.
So how did they construct these remarkable monuments? We’ll never be entirely sure, but reconstructions may provide a plausible answer. Having transported the huge stones by ropes and rollers from where they were quarried, our Neolithic forebears raised the vertical slabs for the walls of the dolmen by bedding them in trenches. Wooden supports kept them upright.
They then built a raised tumulus with stones and earth, tapered to the ground at the back. Using rollers and ropes again, the people pulled the capstone into place on top of the tumulus from back to front. You wonder if some sort of ceremony accompanied the placing of the capstone. Knowing humans’ tendency to celebrate such achievements, I wouldn’t be surprised. Then I daresay they went off to nurse pulled muscles and crushed toes and fingers.
The dolmens today are not exactly as they looked when they were built, the tumuli for the most part having disappeared.
I wonder what people in the intervening centuries made of these dolmens. Legends about them are numerous: giants’ tombs or thrones, sacrificial altars, meeting places for ghosts and witches, places where supernatural beings danced during thunderstorms. You’ll notice that none of these manifestations is good. In fact, a small dolmen near Caylus has a cross erected on top of it: an attempt to exorcise evil spirits? Or simply a mark of conquest by a subsequent religion?
You have to pay tribute to the ingenuity and organisational skills of these people, who are so often portrayed as crude and ignorant.
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