A Limestone Landscape from the Air: Le Causse Mejean, Languedoc, France

By Fowler, Peter | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

A Limestone Landscape from the Air: Le Causse Mejean, Languedoc, France


Fowler, Peter, Antiquity


A small selection of archaeological air photographs taken in 1998 is offered here to demonstrate that palaeo-landscape analysis from the air can be effective in at least one sort of southern French countryside, the limestone upland of Languedoc. The area exemplified, le Causse Mejean, is at an altitude of c. 950 m in a pastoral regime, far from the scene of France's best-known archaeological aerial photographs, Agache's dramatic aerial images in widespread, northern arable (e.g. Agache 1970).

The French landscape and French rural history are, of course, well-known as fertile fields of distinguished scholarship (e.g. Bloch 1966; Braudel 1989; 1990; Duby & Wallon 1975-77; Trochet 1993). Such work provides an intellectual framework for all new research on the cultural landscape, a framework which now includes the concept that' un paysage rural n'est plus un paysage naturel' (Brunet 1992: 16). Provincial history is a particular strength within the French tradition, and Languedoc is no exception (e.g. Cholvy et al. 1991; Marres 1935; Martel 1936). These few photographs, then, can be viewed in the context of a national tradition of landscape scholarship. At the same time, they exhibit a time-depth and structural complexity long familiar both in aerial photography and in landscape studies elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Crawford & Keiller 1928; Brongers 1976; Wilson 1982). They also indicate that, in terms of landscape archaeology, much is to be learnt - and that at least some of it can be learnt - in the remoter areas of the Massif Central and points south (cf. Bastide et al. 1972: plates 210 & 228, excellent oblique air photographs of pastoral southern uplands, described scenically in the long captions but not analysed in terms of cultural process).

Le Causse Mejean

Le Causse Mejean lies about 80 km north-northwest from Montpellier, one of a series of Jurassic limestone plateaux just west of the Cevennes in the centre of the southern edge of the Massif Central [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It is defined topographically by deep gorges, making it like an inland island. Its eastern two-thirds is almost treeless grassland, like England's Salisbury Plain; its western third is pine forest [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2A OMITTED]. Sheep, the nub of the caussenard economy, graze both and until recently transhumed across it (Galibert 1982; de Vairau 1996; Fowler 1998). The Mejean population now numbers under 500 people. Their home enjoys a reputation of wilderness and 'espace naturel', qualities highlighted by the Cevennes National Parc which embraces a southern strip of the Causse; more of the plateau is in its buffer zone. Seemingly empty, the landscape is not in fact the natural, untamed wildscape fondly imagined in the more popular literature; it has only become near-deserted in the 20th century. Previously, it was perhaps at times as busy a place as anywhere in rural France, and its present appearance is largely the product of farming societies continually at work there over four or five thousand years. Its business is now primarily the production of sheep's milk for Roquefort and local cheeses, the fostering of a modest tourism and the support of numerous research activities in economics, sociology and the natural sciences (Bonniol & Saussol 1995).

Our independent, very small-scale part of this research activity is on three fronts, socioeconomic (Boniface et al. forthcoming), palaeo-environmental (Fowler et al. in preparation) and landscape archaeological (Thomas 1994; Fowler 1995; 1998). The archaeology of the Causse Mejean has already enjoyed considerable attention, not least from the dedicated labours in recent decades of M Gilbert Fages (summarized in Fages & Collin 1996, with a basic bibliography). In chronological and monumental terms, at least until the late Roman period, the archaeology is well-founded, and good interpretive working models have been proposed e.g. Lorblanchet 1965.

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A Limestone Landscape from the Air: Le Causse Mejean, Languedoc, France
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