Engineering series 1: Bibracte

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Morvan massif
  3. Bibracte
    1. Gallic origins
    2. Metallurgy
    3. Civil engineering
  4. The fate of the Gauls

1. Introduction

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

Apart from the picturesque landscapes, this region boasts with a noteworthy history and great a many archaeological sites and museum exhibitions.

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

This article illustrates ancient metallurgy, civil engineering and archaeological discoveries in and around Bibracte, as well as giving a small impression about the pristine nature in this part of France.

2. 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.

View from Mont Beuvray (Panorama de la Terrasse)
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 in recent centuries.

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

Cycling in the proximity of Arleuf
Cycling in the proximity of Arleuf
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.

3. Bibracte

3.1 Gallic origins

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.

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

So Bibracte had not been like looted and devastated but was simply abandoned in favor of a village nearby, which possessed a better infrastructure apparently as well as a more suitable geographical location.

3.2 Metallurgy

Around 800 B.C.1 emerged the second epoch in history that was concisely named after a metal on grounds of its overwhelming relevance: the Iron Age.

Iron, that was in the form of iron-ore naturally available to a great extent (far more available than copper, and in particular tin) 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 knowledge, proper devices and much experience.

The Gaul culture had acquired and refined this then state-of-the-art know-how. So the Gaul armies were capable of resisting the enemy forces technically for an extended period of time, until the advanced organization of the Roman military finally tipped the scales.

1 this point in time applies to Central Europe

3.3 Civil engineering

Bibracte was protected by 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.

Parts of the archaeological exhibition on Mont Beuvray; in the right showcase the model of an ancient housing
Parts of the archaeological exhibition on Mont Beuvray; in the right showcase the model of an ancient housing

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

4. 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 eventually discovered the remains of the once so important Celtic settlement.