When I was at school (back in the Dark Ages), we learnt in history that the Romans came after the Greeks. They left us a legacy of Romance languages, our alphabet, Roman law, neo-Classical architecture, impossibly straight roads and under floor central heating. As the empire crumbled, so we were told, the continent descended into the Dark Ages. Barbarians, Vandals, and unpleasantly savage descendants of Asterix the Gaul ravaged Europe, raping, pillaging and generally leaving little time for culture and a settled everyday life.
I think we all knew it was a bit less straightforward than that. The Frankish Germanic tribes entering the late Roman empire had a very different culture from that developed by the Romans, and it’s been much harder to research systematically because there are few contemporary written records.
This week though, we went to visit a Merovingian site, Tabariane, recently excavated and interpreted near Teilhet, not far from Mirepoix. The Merovingians were an early Frankish dynasty established by Clovis, and they ruled an area roughly equivalent to much of France and Germany from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and are the kind of tribe that was dismissed as one of those from the very heart of the Dark Ages
It was a burial site we’d come to see. It has first been discovered in the very early 20th century by Captain Henri Maurel, and had been partly excavated according to the fairly invasive practices of the period. War and economic upheaval meant the site became first neglected, and then entirely forgotten about until recently.
Recent research lead by Nicolas Portet has meant that the burial ground, now carefully excavated, is now, as it almost certainly was then, a burial garden. It’s a large site, on a hillside overlooking the site of the now disappeared Merovingian settlement on the opposite side of the valley. The 166 tombs seem to have been arranged in ‘clans’: loose arrangements of extended families and friends, over a long period of time. It seems to have been a burial ground which held a place in the life of the community for many years, rather than being a cemetery developed as a result of tragedy – war or plague say. Most of the bodies were laid with their heads to the west, their feet to the east. Originally they were clothed, but little remained apart from metal objects: belt buckles, brooches, jewellery and, with some of the men, weapons.
This is where ideas have changed. Early 20th century archaeologists sent excavated objects to museums far and wide, even to America: modern practice which encourages an area’s ’patrimoine’ (heritage) to remain as far as possible intact did not then exist, but you can find examples of objects found here in the Museum at Mazères, and in Saint Raymond de Toulouse.
Now as then, the tombs are planted with local flowering plants: lavenders, marguerites, herbs. It’s thought that locals would have visited the grounds with their families, spent time there, as we might in a modern park. So it was important to both the living and the dead to make it a pleasant, calm place to be. The burial ground overlooked the village. The village overlooked the burial ground. Each had an interest in the other. Each could intercede for the other.
It’s a tranquil, special place, surrounded by meadows and hilly countryside. A circular walk of some two and a half kilometres , starting and ending in the village of Teilhet gives you a chance to spend a peaceful hour or two exploring scenery that may not be so very different from the way it was when the Merovingian villagers first laid out their burial ground, some 800 years ago. Excellent information boards will help you understand a little more about those Merovingian people who made their lives in this still rural area.
While you’re there, make time to enjoy the facade of the 14th century church at Teilhet. Here are some pictures to whet your appetite.
This visit, guided by Marina Salby, formed part of the summer programme of Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares. It will be repeated on 31st July and 21st August. Meet outside the church at Teilhet at 9.30 a.m. Cost: 2 euros.