VIDEO: How Corent Might Have Looked in the Iron Age
Finding "lost" history in the deep heart of France
There’s a lot of “hidden” or “lost” history in the deep heart of France. (Did you know, for example, that Clermont-Ferrand – in fact, much of the Auvergne – was ruled for 100 years by a Visigoth king who established his court at Toulouse? ) Today’s destination, the archeological site at Corent, gives us a glimpse into the far reaches of the Iron Age, when the Gauls dominated this part of France – although you’ll need to use a lot of imagination to put the picture together.
You get there by driving southeast 30 minutes from Clermont-Ferrand. The little village at the bottom of the sharp hill has a little history of its own – it didn’t become a commune until 1875, but it’s been known as a wine-making town since the 10th century A.D.
It “exported” significant quantities of its Gamay Noir vintages to Paris through the 1800s; they even managed to survive the phylloxera epidemic that devastated French wine growers in the late 19th century, and World War I. When the government created a new classification for wines after World War II, the “Vin délimité de Qualité supérieure” (“wine delineated of a superior quality”), Corent applied for and got its VDQS certification in 1951.
A torturous, twisting drive up from the village leads to a tiny grass parking lot and a walk up a steep dirt trail to the top of the plateau. (You can also drive all the way up – but the road signs don’t make that clear, and anyway the hike was a good part of the fun!)
When you get to the top...
When you hit the summit, though, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. But spend an hour walking the plateau and you’ll understand just how significant this site is to our understanding of life in France during the Iron Age (and you’ll get a good walk with exceptional views in the process).
Archeologists have been working on this site off and on since the 1860s, but intensively since 2001. From their discoveries here, they’ve decided that Corent was the capital city of the Arverni, the Gaulish tribe that gave the Auvergne its name.
In Roman terms, they were one of the groups of “Celtic” people that occupied the region. By any definition, though, they must have been an extraordinary group – wealthy from the rich natural resources around them, fierce in battle with a reputation for horsemanship, and powerful enough to offer protection to several of the other tribes around them.
Before the Arverni, people were living on this plateau as long ago as 4,000 B.C., although the first real village wasn’t built until sometime between 1,000 and 800 B.C. Traces of the Arverni themselves span the whole era we call the Iron Age, going back to around 700 B.C., but they didn’t build their capital at Corent until the end of the period, around 150 B.C.
A fortress town - capital of the Arverni
So what did they build here? The building complex is called an “oppidum” – the word is Julius Caesar’s, and he used it to describe the big, fortified towns he found when the Romans came to conquer Gaul. There were a hundred or more “oppida” in the whole territory of France, and three major ones here in the Auvergne: the big one at Gergovie (where Caesar lost a battle to the Arverni army led by Vercengetorix), another at Gondole, and this one at Corent.
From the top of this plateau you can see for miles across the vast plain of the Limagne. In the Iron Age, that plain was covered with small farms. For protection and administration of these tribal farms, the Arverni began to organize these fortress villages. (The three here are only about 4.5 miles apart, so they could effectively survey thousands of hectares of the land around them.)
Within the oppidum, archeologists say there was a fairly well-structured system of houses and public buildings – all constructed of wood and earth. They’ve also identified several major discoveries that mark Corent out as a significant capital city for the Arverni:
- An open square – probably a market place – that would have been surrounded by houses and shops
- An imposingly large rectangular building that evidently served as a religious sanctuary
- A big semi-circular structure that was probably both a theater and an assembly hall for the tribe.
Because they were built of wood and earth, most of what we know about Corent’s buildings comes from the holes and trenches that would have served as foundations. When the Romans conquered Gaul in the 1st century B.C., they took over this site and built some of their own structures directly over the old Arverni buildings – but this time in stone and masonry, so we have a clearer picture of how they would have looked. (You can see remarkable “before” and “after” artists conceptions of these buildings in the site’s official brochure – click here to see them.)
A rich source of archeological discoveries
From all Corent’s different epochs, archeologists have discovered rich clusters of artifacts – Iron Age weapons, examples of Celtic bronze work, thousands of shards from wine jars (probably imported from Italy), an ancient chain-mail coat… The archeological work continues (and will go on for a long time), focused first on giving an idea of the outline of the old village and telling the story of life on top of this plateau as it would have been during the Iron Age.
In the end, for all the “minimalist” character of the site in its current state, I thought the hike up the mountain was worth the half-day I spent in Corent. With a little imagination (and the help of the very informative signposts all over the archeological site), you can visualize a busy little village full of shopkeepers, artisans, warriors, administrators. This is history that pre-dates almost all of the Roman sites we’ve visited, a glimpse into a past of which very few traces remain.
What’s the oldest place you’ve seen in France? Was it worth a visit? Please share your experience in the comments section below, and take a second please to share this article on your favorite social-media forum.