Evidence for Vines and Ancient Cultivation from an Urban Area, Lattes (Herault), Southern France

Article excerpt


The port of Lattes, ancient Lattara, lies halfway between Montpellier and the coast, 7 km from the sea, 4 m above sea-level on the banks of the Lez and the coastal lagoons, in the marshy area that lines the lower Languedoc coast (Py 1993) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In ancient times the lagoons covered a wider area, rich in food resources, and extended for practically the whole length of the eastern Languedoc coastline. The climate is sub-humid Mediterranean; summer dryness can last for between 3 and 5 months according to the year, the spring and autumn parameters being highly variable.

Such local vegetation as there is, is of the marshland variety; facing south towards the coast, Crucianella maritima or Ammophila predominate in the dunes. Around the 'graus', waterways between the sea and the lagoons, areas of plantation include Tamarix gallica, Salix, Alnus glutinosa, Fraxinus oxyphilla, Ulmus, Populus alba and Platanus. Close to cultivated areas, about 10 km north of the site, areas of scrubland contain a complete range of low-lying ligneous vegetation: from Quercus coccifera and Brachypodium ramosum to very low-lying areas of woodland containing Quercus pubescens, Quercus ilex and Pistacia terebinthus.

Work at Lattes over the last 20 years has determined the duration of the occupation, and outlined a stratigraphy from the second half of the 6th century BC to the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd centuries AD (Arnal et al. 1974; Py & Garcia 1994).

The present study of seeds and fruit uses samples from various excavations of 1986-91, relating to the period from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD (Py & Garcia 1994), with two objectives: to investigate the settlement's agriculture and plant resources; and to identify the non-cultivated plant environment familiar to the inhabitants of ancient Lattara. Specific hypotheses are needed to account for the viti-culture of the period.

The initial studies of seed and fruit remains

From the very first borings made at Lattes, botanical remains were recovered from the early levels (borings 2 and 3, levels VII and VIII-IX, 5th century BC), and from the 'port' area (boring 9, level IB, 1st century BC/1st AD). In early levels are remains of grape vine-pips, cereals (hulled barley and wheat), and an olive-stone - the earliest at Lattes (Arnal et al. 1974). Boring 9 shows the presence of cereals (wheat and barley), nuts and peach-stones (GAP 1967). And part of a grape-pip is said to have been observed in 1965 during a boring on the 'Nicot' parcel of land (Richard 1973).

Other plant remains are: from boring 16 (the ditch at level III, 4th-2nd century BC), grape-pips, an olive-stone, vine-shoots; from boring 26, sector 11 (well 3, 1st century AD), cereal grains; sector 12 (well 1, 1st-2nd centuries AD), pine-kernel and nuts; and sector 21 (well 84/1, first half of 2nd century BC), grape-pips. These samples have always been found either in heavy concentrations of carbonized remains (borings 2 and 3, and on the land belonging to M. Nicot), or from damp areas such as canals, ditches or wells (as in the case of borings 9, 16 and 26).

Samples and their analysis

Experiments in 1986 and 1987 established a frame of reference for extracting samples from extensive excavation (Buxo 1989) from various stratigraphic units - in particular those richest in organic material or domestic waste, in which remains were widely dispersed, or in the waste from ditches, wells, post-holes or hearths (Buxo 1993).

The volume of sediment treated is different for each chronological period; in the largest layers one can distinguish road-fillings, soil sediment and ditch-fillings from the earlier periods (4th-3rd centuries BC), and fillings from ditches and wells from the more recent (2nd-1st centuries BC and 1st century AD).

The density of plant remains varies with the sediment: a large part of the plant remains are found in road-fillings, whilst ditch- and well-fillings predominate in the more recent layers. …