Silver coin of Vercingetorix, late
Gallo-Belgic gold stater coin
THE IRON AGE OPPIDUM OF BIBRACTE, MOUNT BEAUVRAY, FRANCE
Bibracte was the name used by Julius Caesar in the was against the Gauls to refer to the Gaullic (or Gallic) situated on Mount Beauvray in the Saone et Loire province of France. It was the economic, religious, and political centre of the Eduens, a powerful Celtic tribe during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and was subsequently occupied by the Romans. There is also a much later medieval chapel dedicated to St Martin within the settlement. The ancient settlement, situated within protected forest land on the summit of Mount Beuvray spreads over 480 acres, and was fortified by a massive series of double ramparts. This particular type of settlement is known as an oppidum; (defined by the Times Atlas of Archaeology as ‘A large permanent settlement of Iron Age Europe, which served as a centre for administration, trade, craft production and religion’). Today the entire area is open to the public, and an accurate map of the area is available. Excavations have been meticulously carried out since the last century, and the remains of the entire settlement, including ancient roads and pathways are accessible. The main street, which crosses the 1.5Km of the Oppidum, passes through a craftworkers district (called the Champlain), where Celtic blacksmiths, enamel workers and metalworkers all had their workshops. In the middle of the 14m wide main street is a massive granite basin edged with faced stones. This basin marks the heart of the town. Work is still very much being carried out today by European research teams, who are bringing to light side streets, districts, and foundations of stone houses with their vast cellars. There is a reconstructed monumental gate, from where the main street leads visitors to a vast clearing which contains the remains of large and luxurious Roman villas, built after the Romans ousted the Celtic inhabitants. A number of natural springs with accompanying wooden water-basins dating from the early Celtic period have been uncovered within the settlement.
The view from the stone orientation platform at the summit of Mount Beauvray offers a fine panoramic view, allowing visitors to form an idea of the vast size of the original Bibracte complex. Outside the ramparts of the oppidum and close to the present day museum is an excavated necropolis, an area of tombs, temples and pathways which amounted to a city set aside for the dead. Fine small ceramic items placed as offerings have been found in this area and can be seen in the Museum.
It was here at Bibracte that the Celtic chief Vercingetorix mustered the Gaulish force against the Romans in 52BC. Subsequently Julius Caesar, after his conquest of the surrounding area of Alesia, began to write his legendary work ‘The Gallic Wars’ at this particular site.
In the 19th century, Jacques-Gabriel Bulliot, followed by Joseph Dechelette, began the important excavations here. Today they are still being continued, and the whole complex has been really well established as a centre for early European Celtic culture. There is a large research centre about 5Km from the oppidum, as well as the excellent Museum of Bibracte, located just outside the site itself. In the research centre the painstaking restoration of fine examples of Celtic ceramics is being undertaken, often piecing together from very small fragments very large items such as ceramic storage jars, as well as cleaning artefacts such as Gaullic coins under magnifying binoculars. There is also a large library section, as well as graphic and photographic workshops. Researchers, students, and school parties are welcome. The museum itself is a very large modern building, with much widow-area providing excellent lighting for the exhibits and displays, which are laid out on two floors. Thoughtfully the designers of the building have incorporated a lift for disabled people to the first floor – a feature some of the UK museums would do well to incorporate. As well as many beautiful original finds from the site itself, there are excellent reconstructions of some high-class Celtic artefacts from outside the area, such as the 1st century BC Gundestrup silver cauldron from Denmark. The exhibits from the site include coins, ceramics and stone carvings, as well as various other artefacts. There is an audio-visual room which runs a fascinating chronology of the site, from 20,000 BC to the present day. Further on there is a diorama of Dumnorix, an Aedui chief from the Bibracte region. There are also three sections on the economy of the Bibracte oppidum; craftsmanship, agriculture, and trade. The whole layout is very impressive, with fine graphics and photographic representations, as well as excellent original artefacts. Some items of pottery dating from the 1st century BC have wonderfully bold decoration in red ochre, including depictions of small animals such as deer.
In all, this is a truly worthy and very large ongoing International venture, which will prove of great interest to Celtic enthusiasts not just from Europe but worldwide. The combination of the original Iron Age oppidum with its excavations accessible to the public, together with the Bibracte Museum and the Research centre, unite to form a major contribution with regard to understanding more about the Celticway of life in Europe during the 2nd century and 1st centuries BC. The museum is open from March to November and during the summer months there are regular individual guided tours of two hour duration. For groups there are guided tours throughout the whole year by appointment.
- © R. Diesvelt