Engineering series 2: Bibracte

Introduction

During the summer of 2016, I made an extensive bike tour through the Morvan massif in east-central France.

Beside the picturesque and solitude landscape, this region has a noteworthy history with scores of archaeological sites and museum exhibitions.

It gravitates for the most part around the ancient town of Bibracte, which had been an important village during the Roman occupation of Gaul (50 B. C.) but was abandoned in favor of the nearby Augustodonum (Autun) after a few decades.

I want to illustrate ancient metallurgy, civil engineering and some archaeological discoveries in and around Bibracte in this article.

The Morvan massif

The Morvan massif is a sparsely populated and densely wooded area in the center of France (Burgundy). Important cities in the radius of fifty kilometers are Dijon, Auxerre, and Beaune.

The highest elevation of the massif is Haut Folin (901 meters), and among a couple of further elevations that can be found primarily in the southern part stands Mont Beuvray (821 meters) with the archaeological remains of Bibracte.

Bibracte, Mont Beuvray
View from Mont Beuvray (Panorama de la Terrasse)

Due to the lack of major industry in this area, the inhabitants made ends meet chiefly through farming and timber harvesting during recent centuries.

Barrier lakes and small streams had been of commercial relevance to some extent (like the Lac des Settons, for example), but are mostly tourist-destinations these days.

Cycling somewhere near Arleuf in the Morvan massif
Cycling somewhere near Arleuf in the Morvan massif
Saut de Gouloux near the Lac des Settons
Saut de Gouloux near the Lac des Settons

In the end-phases of the 2nd World War, La Résistance operated on a large scale out of the inaccessible area against the German Wehrmacht.

Military cemeteries and monuments are scattered all over the several thousand square kilometers of the Morvan massif, and can also be visited.

Bibracte

Bibracte on Mont Beuvray was the capital of the Gallic Aedui people during the first and second centuries B.C.

In 52 B.C. Vercingetorix was declared chief of the Gallic coalition in this village, shortly before his defeat by Julius Caesar.

Caesar resided in this place before the baggage eventually decamped to Augustodonum (Autun), twenty-five kilometers eastwards.

Autun, Saint-André gate
Porte Saint-André in Autun, Roman period

So Bibracte had not been looted and devastated but was just abandoned in favor of a village nearby, which featured apparently a better infrastructure and a more suitable geographical location.

Metallurgy

Between 700 B.C. and 500 A.D. 1 emerged the second epoch in human history that was concisely denominated after a metal due to its overwhelming relevance: the Iron Age.

1 in Europe

Iron, that was in the form of iron-ore easily available (at least easier than copper, and tin in particular) substituted bronze (the alloy of copper and tin) as material for weapons, armaments, and items for civil use.

Iron can be alloyed with carbon to steel, whose properties (hardness, toughness) were far superior to bronze, or any other metal or alloy known at the time.

However, iron is more difficult to smelter and the process requires expert know-how and much experience.

The Gaul culture had acquired that particular knowledge, hence the Gaul armies were capable to resist the enemy military forces for some time until the more advanced organization of the Romans eventually tipped the scales.

Civil engineering

Bibracte was protected through two rings of a defensive wall, which comprised stones, mineral filler material and wooden beams in a specific truss layout (murus gallicus).

This type of wall was far superior to the usual defensive walls which solely consisted of boulders.

Bibracte, museum exhibition
Parts of the archaeological exhibition on Mont Beuvray, in the right showcase the model of a house

A great percentage of the dwellings for the ordinary people was comparatively primitive, since most of the more precious building material was exclusively used for the battlements.

As a matter of fact, little is known about civil engineering in Bibracte. Organic materials deteriorate fast, and without remains.

A few houses were built out of stone (in the center of the Oppidum) however, and hence they provide scientists a better perspective into the vanished Celtic world.

The Fate of the Gauls

After their defeat, Gaul soon adapted the Roman culture and became a Gallo-Roman society, where the Gaul upper crust was replaced by the Roman gentry.

Bibracte sunk more and more into oblivion.

It took almost two-thousand years, until scientists initiated archaeological excavations on Mont Beuvrey, where they surmised and discovered soon afterwards the remains of the once important Celtic village.