Sunday, October 03, 2010

Bibracte: Memories of a past that didn't exist

It's a strange experience wondering round Bibracte, the ancient Gaulish city that served as a center for much of the south before Julius Caesar stomped his muddy sandals all over the place. For a start it's a huge site that you couldn't possibly cover in a day.

Within the city walls you not only had housing and commerce but they also grow crops and farmed animals - ensuring that under any siege the city could last out almost indefinitely. As a space it sprawls and, unlike Roman towns and cities of the day it sat on top of a set of rolling hills making it difficult to attack, particularly with siege machinery.

So different from Roman towns was it, and its ilk, that the Romans even gave them a specific word, Oppidum.

There's wonderful exhibition in Bribracte which Natalie has reviewed here and the fact you can explore to your heart's content around the part excavated mansions, walls and market places as well as its ancient stones and trees makes it a fascinating place to visit - although a car is absolutely essential.

One of the things that got me thinking about the place though was more tangential. Much of what we see of the distant past is in ruins, half covered with earth and nature, the artifacts of the past are battered, worn and made of stone or metal on the whole as wood, leather and the like have long rotted away.

This skews the way we think of these times in interesting ways. For example I certainly tend to think of Roman structures as pure white, elegantly simple when, of course, we actually know many of them were painted garish colours and/or surrounded by wooden structures or flowing material. The aesthetic look may suit the idea of a long dead past but at the time the living breathing people were having much more fun.

Likewise as I sat having a picnic in the centre of what was Bibracte I was basically sitting in a spooky and empty forest. Combined with the mist it was very easy to imagine a Celtic warrior strolling out of the dark all muscle and hair - but the forest came centuries after Bibracte's decline as a city. When in use it would have been made up of very Roman looking buildings, square stone walls and streets with thousands of people coming and going with their business.

The internal image of the past in my mind's eye is in reality a fantasy, completely unlike the reality of what would have been instantly recognisable as a relative of a modern city. It brings to mind a phrase of Victor Serge when he talked about those separated from us by time as "infinitely like us, infinitely different from us".

These are people who had decent beds, enjoyed a drink, and fell in love. Quite unbarbarian-like they shaved and understood personal grooming in a very modern sense. They also had laws, ethics and spent the majority of their time basically getting along. However, they also sold slaves without a qualm and clearly had a fetish for trepanning (drilling holes in the skull) - if you were transported back in time they'd be things you'd have to get used to.

Gaul was rich, civilised and ordered long before the Romans came, saw and conquered but our vision of the place is distorted by Caesar's history and Roman bigotry as well as the way we inevitably see the past through it's silent ruins not in living, noisy motion. In fact I suspect the ancient Gaul's would be far more familiar to us if we met them face to face than we often believe.


GE said...

"a car is absolutely essential"

Oh dear, Jim, you are living in the past, aren't you?

weggis said...

This is France.
It will be a hired eco-electric car topped up from the local Nuclear Power Station ;)

Jim Jepps said...


I have absolutely no idea how it would be done without motorised transport (or possibly a horse!) it's in the middle of nowhere, up a very steep hill and then the site itself is huge!

But you're right I'm sure some hikers and very strong mountain bikers might be able to give it a go

weggis said...

So tell me Jim. Who built the place and what forms of transport did they use to get themselves and the materials there?

Jim Jepps said...

The people who built it had the advantage of living there - I was coming from elsewhere (and of course it was part of the idea to make it difficult to approach and self contained, they even had 16 natural water springs in the site).

The ancient Gauls made it (or more specifically the Aedui) with local stone and wood.

They did have roads - quite well formed ones I think - which people would travel on by horse, by cart and quite possibly by foot :)

They didn't ave many day trippers though

weggis said...

But Jim , the people who lived there only had the advantage of living there after they had built it :)
Prior to that, they were like you a daytripper coming from elsewhere?

Jim Jepps said...

Not strictly speaking true as it took decades to build - but even if they came from elsewhere they would have stayed there while they were building it... you didn't get many people commuting great distances in those days.

GE said...

Well, I don't know about hikers and strong mountain bikers, but I've seen plenty of old ladies and gents hopping up mountains like mountain goats in places like the Himalayas and Caucasus, and living to great old ages on it!

Maybe you're rushing too much, with an overambitious schedule - your middle name's not Anneka by any chance?

Anyhow, apart from your unfortunate remark about cars, I thought this is a beautifully crafted post and very interesting, particularly as I'd never heard about Bibracte before despite my love of the Varian Disaster.

Thankyou. Have fun!