Oppidum of Bibracte

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

 

 

Plan of the fortifications of the oppidum of Bibracte. The grey area represents land over 700 m in elevation.

Bibracte was a Gaulish oppidum which, according to Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (‘Gallic War’) 1.23, was the capital of the Gaulish tribe known as the Aedui. It is located on Mont-Beuvray near Autun in Burgundy (south-east France). The oppidum covers 2 km2 and extends over three summits which overlook the central part of the Morvan mountains. Its prominent position dominating its landscape must have been even more impressive in antiquity since the mountain top would have been bare and enclosed by massive ramparts.

Many of the gates of Bibracte were constructed primarily for processional purposes, in which function was subordinate to appearance. For example, the northeastern gate, now called porte du rebout (gate of the limb), is the largest example of a gate in any Celtic oppidum yet excavated.

Bibracte was subdivided into several areas or quarters given over to specific activities and social classes. The quarters in the north-east and south-west were reserved for artisans and commerce respectively. The central residential quarter contained many elaborate houses partly imitating the Roman urban house-type with a central open area (atrium) and a garden enclosed by a small colonnade (peristyle; the so-called parc aux chevaux). Each quarter seems to have had a cult site or a temple (see map).

The artisans’ quarters show evidence of elaborate metallurgy, including gold, bronze, and iron working, as well as enamel production. The internal street-plan was comparatively regular in so far as the lay of the land allowed. It was dominated by a south-to-west axis, centred on a convex basin, whose orientation towards the summer and winter solstice implies a cult significance.

The ritual precincts were located in the south (la terrasse, the terrace), the north-west (le teureau de la roche, hill of the rock) and the north-east (le teureau de la wivre, hill of the serpent; these are dialect words: teureau, as theurot, from Gaulish *turra ‘hill’, and wivre, as vouivre, from Latin vipera, Old French vuivre ‘serpent’, cf. Welsh gwiber). In these locations the ritual area have been sited by prominent rocks, which seem to have played a part in the cult. At the site of the terasse a small chapel was built in the Middle Ages.

Three wells were located within the fortified perimeter of Bibracte, and there is evidence for ritual depositions in them, which implies the presence of the commonly occurring Celtic cult of spring deities. Pre-Roman coinage was found inside the walls. Bibracte was a mint, and a coin mould for casting 25 blanks was found on the site (Allen, Coins of the Ancient Celts 34). The name DUMNORIX, which is mentioned in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, and possibly his portrait, has been found on one of the coins from Bibracte. In Roman times, the population of Bibracte relocated to the newly founded town of Augustodūnum, present-day Autun. The name Bibracte has been explained as a Celtic collective in –axtā based on the root bibr- ‘beaver’, hence ‘place of beavers’ (Lambert, La langue gauloise 59, 188– 9). Modern Mont-Beuvray continues the ancient name.

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