‘Hidden Faces of the Pyrenees’ Talk for Hidden History Travel.

Below you can watch the talk I gave for the ‘Armchair Archaeology’ series run by Hidden History Tours, focussing on the histories of Occitania and Andorra. The tour which I run with Hidden History in this region can be found here: http://www.hiddenhistory.co.uk/tour-item/andorra-the-occitan/

This is quite a broad-brush talk, however I hope some of you find something of interest in it none the less!

Article 26 – The Flaming Chalices of the Pyrenees

Since the mysteries of Rennes-le-chateau and Montsegur, not to mention the Cathar heresy, found their way into the public imagination, the Pyrenees has often been linked in various ways with the subject of the Holy Grail. This is not least due to the efforts of German Medievalist Otto Rahn, whose theories surrounding the connection between Montsegur and Monsalvat of Parzifal fame have found a receptive and varied audience. However, a very recent article by Alfred Llahi Segalas in an Andorran national paper (Bon Dia, 4th February 2019, p. 5) seems to present another line of inquiry regarding the presence of a ‘flaming chalice’ in Romanesque church iconography within Pyrenean Catalonia.

Within the cathedral of Valencia lies the ‘Sacred Chalice’, which is legendarily regarded as the Holy Grail (or at least, one of them). Allegedly, it was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by Saint Peter, and Pope Sixtus II then gave it to Saint Llorenc, who transferred it across the Pyrenees to Huesca, where it stayed until 712. Saint Llorenc then fled the Islamic forces and took refuge in the Aragonese monastery of San Juan de la Peña, near Jaca. It was then transferred to Zaragoza, and given to the King of Aragon, Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410) in 1399, who kept it in the Aljaferia Royal Palace until he died, whereupon it was transferred to the Royal Palace of Barcelona. In 1424 his successor, King Alfonso the Magnanimous (1396 – 1458) gave the royal reliquary over to the cathedral of Valencia, and in 1437 the chalice was also passed over to the cathedral.

Valencia chalice

The ‘Holy Chalice’ of Valencia Cathedral. Photo taken from: http://www.catedraldevalencia.es/en/el-santo-caliz_historia.php

The cup itself is generally contained in the 14th-century Chapter House, other than when it is used at the High Altar for specific celebrations. The principal part of the relic is the dark-brown agate cup, which was dated in the 1960’s by archaeologist Antonio Beltrán to between 100-50 B.C. and ascribed an ‘Oriental’ origin. The stem and handles are later additions, and the alabaster base is Islamic in design. There is also some Arabic script on the foot of the chalice.



The Virgin holding the Flaming Chalice, located in the apse of Sant Pere del Burgal (Pallars Sobirà). Photo taken from: https://www.museunacional.cat/en/colleccio/apse-el-burgal/mestre-de-pedret/113138-001


Professor Vincent Zuriaga (professor of Art History at the Catholic University of Valencia) in a 2008 presentation on Romanesque frescoes suggested that the iconography of the Virgin holding a flaming chalice may be a representation of the Holy Grail. Coincidentally, or not, the only four Romanesque churches in the world that have such a motif in their wall paintings are found in the Pyrenees, including one in Andorra. These churches are: Sant Climent de Taüll (Alta Ribagorça), Santa Maria de Ginestarre & Sant Pere del Burgal (Pallars Sobirà), and Sant Romà de les Bons (Encamp, Andorra). The latter also contains a very fine fresco depicting St John’s apocalyptic dreams, and some rare examples of paintings of livestock – a scene usually considered too hum-drum for inclusion. Zuriaga also suggested that the singular presence of these frescoes in the Pyrenees, combined with the legend journey of the ‘Sacred Chalice’ through the Pyrenees to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, indicates that it is possible that the chalice was the object referred to within these four frescoes. Whether this hypothesis is correct or not, and if so, whether the chalice in question was represented from hearsay or an artist’s direct interaction with it, is impossible to say, however the unique presence of these four representations in such a small area of the Pyrenees (and indeed, the world), gives one pause for thought!


Field Report: Ariege Tour

Crossing the border of Andorra into France on a rather glorious summer’s day, the first stop on the itinerary was the village perche of Lordat, complete with the well preserved (but sadly inaccessible) ruins of its Cathar castle. The Chateau de Lordat is first mentioned in 970 AD in local registers and seems to have followed the rather typical existence of a castle belonging to the Count de Foix, controlling a small Occitan territory. However, it found itself at the forefront of the Albigensian crusade when in 1244 it was occupied by Cathars; sadly, little is known of their fate. The castle was abandoned later in the 14th century, and stands now as an elegant ruin, like so many of its kin, overlooking the valley below. From this vantage point, one can also see the Pic du St Barthelemy, beyond which lies the mysterious ruin of Montsegur, and it is possible to walk from ruin to another over this mountain (possibly a future venture!). Up here one is surrounded by the sounds of insects and birdsong, and the locale of the castle is unsurprising when one considers the enormous views that stretch almost 360 degrees around its towers.


(Lordat castle and the view down into the main valley. Photos taken by author.)


Onwards then to Tarascon-sur-Ariege for a mid-morning coffee break before plunging into the prehistory of the infamous cave at Mas d’Azil. Tarascon-sur-Ariege is often overlooked by tourists more intent on reaching Foix, but it is a charming little town, typical of the Ariege. It is situated at the confluence of the Ariege and Vicdessos rivers, surrounded by chalk cliffs and was once a thriving centre of commerce during the Middle Ages; so much so that the remains of the town’s fortifications from this period are still visible. Stretching across the river is a 12th century bridge, whose western side is dominated by the 14th century church of Sainte-Quitterie. The late-18th century Castella tower looms over this small town, home to the last blast furnace in the Pyrenees, and is situated on the site of a former feudal castle. One name from the list of notable Tarasconnais which may be familiar to readers here is that of the Cathar researcher Antonin Gadal, who dedicated his life to unpicking the mysteries of this faith and was instrumental in the nurturing of Otto Rahn’s research, a figure who reoccurs in this travelogue.



(View from the 12th century bridge at Tarascon-sur-Ariege at the confluence of the Ariege and Vicdessos rivers. Photo taken by author.)


After a coffee in the morning sun, it was a short drive to Mas d’Azil, whose cave is a world renowned typesite for the Azilian culture (c.12,000 years ago, and named after the cave itself), and also shows extensive evidence of occupation during the preceding Magdalenian culture (c. 17,000 – 12,000 years ago), which existed towards the end of the last Ice Age and is associated with the domestication of the dog. The main road runs right through this enormous cave, but thankfully there are other, more introspective ways to explore its secrets. Within its winding passages can be found a multitude of engravings, ranging from bison, horses, birds, reindeer, and fish, to painted human masks, genitals and a series of intercutting lines, dots and un-interpreted signs. Some of the paintings show evidence of what may be halter-like constructions on the heads of the horses and reindeer, which the original 19th century excavator (Eduoard Piette) believed was evidence of a very early form of domestication – potentially following the prior efforts with dogs. One of the most spectacular finds from this cave is the spear-thrower (Magdalenian) carved from antler in the form of a fawn or deer looking back on itself. Other examples of similar spear-throwers have been found the breadth of the Pyrenees, but this is undoubtedly the finest or best preserved.



(Mas d’Azil Cave, photo from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Mas-d%27Azil-grotte_02.JPG)


What is truly special about this cave is its continuity of use for shelter, from these prehistoric occupants through to the more turbulent times of the Middle Ages, and there is even evidence of Huguenots finding refuge there. Given this pattern of occupation, it is not wildly illogical to suspect that during the Albigensian crusade, some Cathars fleeing the destruction of their homes and communities may have evaded their attackers in these passages, and if so who can wonder at what they must have thought when seeing these archaic paintings, flickering in the light of their torches. Indeed, if there were any rogue Cathars hiding in this extensive cave, would they have felt any connection with the past inhabitants through the use of art on the walls, a practise which Otto Rahn (and Antonin Gadal) suggested was implemented by Cathars in caves throughout the Sabbarthes area?



(The antler carved spear-thrower from Mas d’Azil. Photo from: http://donsmaps.com/images17/masdazilIMG_0852sm.jpg)


The final stop of the day was at the walled town of Foix, with its castle perched on an imposing rock, the capital of the County of Foix, primary seat of its Count, and a community well known for its Cathar sympathies in ages past. The town allegedly owes its origins to an oratory founded by none other than Charlemagne himself (which then became the Abbey of Saint Volusianus in 849), around which grew a township, however it was after the construction of the castle in the early 10th century that Foix truly began to flourish under the various Counts of Foix. The castle held such an excellent defensive position that it repelled repeated attacks by Simon de Montfort IV between 1211 and 1217 (the Albigensian Crusade), and it was only when in the late 13th century the Count of Foix refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of Phillip III (‘the Bold’), King of France, that the subsequent expedition launched against it overcame the castle and town.



(Foix and its castle. Photo from: http://www.francethisway.com/images/places/foix.jpg)


Sadly, the weather by now was closing in, and so after a wet dash through the town to reach the castle and tour it, the most prudent course of action was to retire to a small brasserie, which thankfully had plentiful supplies of Leffe on tap, and soak up (no pun intended) the atmosphere of this mysterious Occitan town. Adjacent was an excellent second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, where two books on Otto Rahn were purchased and added to the Perennial Pyrenees research library (‘Le Mystere Otto Rahn du Catharisme au Nazisme’ by Christian Bernadac, Editions France-Empire 1978, and ‘Hitler et la Tradition Cathare’ by Jean-Michel Angebert, Editions Robert Laffont 1971). The purchase of these books raised a discreet eyebrow from the seller, but they were simply too informative to pass up!


(The books themselves, a glorious haul!)


One figure from Foix who is of particular note is Esclarmonde de Foix, a 13th century Cathar, daughter of Roger Bernard I, Count of Foix and sister to the troubadour Raymond-Roger de Foix. Known as being a great beauty, her name translates roughly to ‘Light of the World’, and she had a reputation for skill and knowledge of art, philosophy, religion and politics. After being widowed she turned to Catharism, so much so in fact that she took the consolamentum from Cathar bishop Guilhabert de Castres in 1204 and became a Cathar ‘Parfaite’ (priest), all with the blessings of her father and brother. It was she who ordered the rebuilding of Montsegur, the reconstructions of which were vital in enabling it to hold out so long against the besiegers. Her work included commissioning schools and hospitals throughout the region, helping countless Cathars and Parfaites to escape the oncoming crusaders and evading the bounty hunters and papal legates who wanted her eliminated, especially due to the fact that during the Albigensian Crusade she became a symbol of the local and Cathar resistance. During this period she lived as a fugitive, sleeping in caves and never knowing rest, and she is rumoured to have died in one of the caves in the Ariege or Aude. Esclarmonde is still spoken of fondly in the region, and has come to almost represent Catharism, especially during those dark days, where her actions lived up to her name.


The following day brought similarly wet beginnings, but thankfully as soon as we left Foix the clouds cleared and glorious sunshine accompanied the drive to Mirepoix. En route an unexpected delight was spied, and demanded closer investigation. Looming out of the rock in Vals was the villages troglodyte church, the ‘Eglise Rupestre de Vals’. Surrounded by fields, houses pieced together from warm yellow stone and silence, this church rises out of a natural hillock, a small citadel among the rural pastures. The door leads one directly into the rock, with steps carved up and into the main body of the church. What lies within is truly surprising, and we were lucky to be the sole visitors within the site. This church has origins in the 10th century, and possesses some very fine Romanesque roof frescoes depicting the saints and Christ, all of whom stare down strikingly from the vault. In the upper floor of the church one finds the 12th century chapel of St Michael, and the church tower which dates to the 14th century and rears above the village. One could almost hear the ghostly voices of a long diminished congregation, under the watchful eyes from the frescos above. Outside, from the top of the hillock one can see across to the distant Pyrenees, including the peak of the aforementioned St Barthelemy, whose spire seems to follow the traveller across the Ariege, a perpetual reminder of its neighbouring site, Montsegur.

(Vals Church, its frescoes, and views. Photos taken by author.)


A short drive away lies the town of Mirepoix, with its impeccable Medieval square and cathedral. Another victim of the de Montforts in 1209, the town was destroyed by floods in 1289 and rebuilt the following year. The Mirapiciens who inhabit this town are lucky enough to live amongst one of the greatest surviving Medieval arcaded market squares in Europe, with many of the houses dating back to the 13th and 15th centuries and supported by great wooden pillars. Some of the joists which jut out into the square are carved with faces and animals, and the carvings on the Maison des Consuls (next to the cathedral) are a mixture of bearded heads, tortoises, women’s faces and fantastical beasts. A number of restaurants and shops (including an excellent bookshop where another volume was purchased – ‘Magie et Sorcellerie dans les Pyrenees’ by Olivier de Marliave, 2006 Editions Sud Ouest) line the square and surround the beautiful Cathedral du St Maurice. Construction began on the cathedral (then a church) in 1298 and continued in various forms (renovations, expansions etc. into the cathedral we see now) over the ensuing six centuries until it was fully restored in the mid 19th century. Inside one finds a riot of colour, thankfully well preserved, with blue vaulting and numerous wall paintings (and wall papers!) still surviving, and the second widest nave in Europe.


(The Cathedral of Mirepoix, its interior, and an example of the 13th century buildings that line the main arcaded square. Photos taken by author.)


Thankfully the sun was shining, making an excellent lunch all the more pleasant, and despite the high volume of tourism, there was an overwhelming sense of tranquillity in this picturesque Medieval square, with no more noise than the slurping of wine, puffing of cigarettes and gentle chatter.

Fortified, it was time to make our way to the final stop of the day and this miniature tour, the mountain castle of Montsegur. This site has been mentioned previously in Article #7, however, it has become such a symbol of the region and Catharism itself (not to mention other, more esoteric matters) that it is worth recapping. The fortress we see today is actually a post-Albigensian Crusade rebuild, the original having been destroyed by Rome, however, it occupies exactly the same site as its former incarnation. The commune itself was ruled variously by the Counts of Toulouse, the Viscounts of Carcassonne and finally the Counts of Foix, hence Esclarmonde’s ability to order its increased fortification. It is popularly considered the final castle to be besieged during the Albigensian Crusade, and in 1244 the Cathar occupants agreed to surrender. Not however before insisting on a delay and exchanging hostages to ensure that this delay was observed. Some have suggested that it was in order to celebrate a particular day or period sacred to the Cathar faith. Others insist that during this time, four Cathars escaped during nightfall, over the edge of the fortress and down the steep cliffs, carrying something of great value; this has led to intense speculation about the nature of the ‘treasure’, with some claiming it to be gold and jewels, others that it was a book or series of teachings that would ensure the survival of the Cathar dualist doctrine, and other still insisting that it was something far greater, possibly the Holy Grail itself. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is recorded that these four men did escape with something of value, but its destination and nature is forever a mystery. In March 1244 Montsegur surrendered, and in an extraordinary display of faith, 244 of the occupants refused to renounce their faith and were burnt en masse in the field beneath the castle. This event is remembered every year on March 16, and their names (collected by the Inquisitors) are displayed in the local museum.


(The view of the field before the castle, where the Cathars were burnt. This auto de feu may have had less success when we visited due to the weather! Photo taken by author.)


The connection (see Article #7) with figures like Antonin Gadal, Otto Rahn and others, as well as the enduring popular connection between Montsegur and some fabulous ‘secret’ (be it the Grail or a deep esoteric understanding of the universe) has meant that Montsegur occupies a special place in the hearts of many who travel there. Winding up the road to the village and castle, the heavens broke open and a tremendous storm shook the commune for the entirety of our stay here, preventing access to the castle and plunging the whole area in a dark and highly atmospheric mist. Stoically sitting the weather out with a beer or two, it was with great fortune that we spied the director and Montsegur resident Richard Stanley on the horizon, feathered hat and staff in hand, and briefly made introductions. Richard is responsible for the Otto Rahn documentary ‘The Secret Glory’ (as well as numerous other films during the nineties) and moved to this village many years ago after having been captivated by Rahn’s story. With the rain pouring down, it was easy to imagine Rahn in his small hotel room, writing furiously and leafing through his copy of Parzifal, and this encouraged us to leaf through the two newly acquired books on his life and findings, enjoy some local wine and talk long into the night.



(The view of Montsegur from its base and approach, taken during a more clement previous visit. Photo taken by author.)


The rain continued to pour down all through the night, cloaking the little valley in mist and, sometimes, hailstones, showing just how treacherous the weather can be in the Ariege. By the morning, it still continued to pour, rendering a visit to the castle both unwise and uncomfortable, and so we decided that a return trip was necessary when the sun could be depended upon. After an interesting and unexpected journey to the border which took us over hill and vale through a thoroughly Wagnerian landscape, we dropped down into Ax-les-Thermes and wound up towards Andorra, where the sun was breaking through the clouds. An enjoyable, if wet, jaunt through some of the more celebrated sites in the region, and an encouragement to explore deeper into this Cathar territory when the opportunity next presents itself!


Weekly Article #13 – From Charlemagne to the advent of the 19th century.

A late post this week, unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view!) an influx of work has delayed this post, but nothing can completely halt the flow of information from these mountains! Today we have the second half of the archaeo-historical story of Andorra, from the Franks to the opening up of Andorra to the world. This (along with the previous ‘history of Andorra’ post) will appear in the upcoming guidebook to the culture, history, and archaeology of Andorra which, fingers crossed, should be out in time for packing into Christmas stockings…

Charlemagne’s gift

During the 8th century, the Visigoths saw their kingdom crumble before the expansion of the Umayyad caliphate across much of Spain. In 732 the Umayyad governor led an expedition across the Western Pyrenees into Bordeaux. Later that year Charles Martel, the de facto leader of the Frankish Kingdom defeated the Moorish forces at the infamous Battle of Tours, and began the pushback the started what is known as the ‘reconquista’. He also founded the Carolingian Dynasty, which would produce perhaps one of the most famous kings in European history, Charlemagne. Charles Martel had several sons, and he divided his kingdom up between them. Pepin the Younger led a fierce eight-year campaign routing the Muslims from Narbonne in 759, dying in 768, and his brother Charlemagne continued his work, crossing the Pyrenees in 778 to attack the city of Zaragossa. This attempted siege failed and Charlemagne was forced to retreat, only to be ambushed by Basque forces in retaliation for his prior destruction of Pamplona’s city walls! This resulted in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, from which came the infamous romantic tale, The Song of Roland. The main passes of the Pyrenees (Roncesvalles, Somport and La Jonquera) were turned into vassal states by Charlemagne (Pamplona, Aragon and Catalonia respectively), and acted as a buffer against the Muslim forces, remaining stable for two centuries. Within this period, we find the legend of Andorra’s birth as a sovereign territory. According to national myth, Charlemagne granted a charter to the Andorran people after their giving him assistance at in fighting the Moorish forces at Porté-Puymorens in Cerdanya. There is even a local legend that a house exists in the parish of St Julia de Loria where he stayed one night (for more information on this, see the parish’s chapter). Whatever the truth of this matter, Andorra certainly formed part of the ‘Marca Hispanica’ the aforementioned Pyrenean buffer zone that kept the Frankish kingdom safe from the Moorish armies.

The Child of Urgell & Foix

Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bold, named the Count of Urgell as the lord of Andorra, and one of his descendants then gave the territory over to the Diocese of Urgell. However, in the 11th century the Bishop of Urgell became worried about the sabre-rattling behaviour of nearby lords and placed himself under the protection of the Lord of Caboet, a Catalan nobleman. Through an astute marriage, the Count of Foix became this Lord’s heir, and a dispute emerged as to who had control over Andorra – was it the Bishop, or the Count? Thankfully this problem was solved in 1278 through the signing of a pariatges, which gave shared sovereignty to both parties. It also gave Andorra its current political and territorial form, which remains unchanged today, and Andorra still pays an annual tribute to these co-rulers in the form of forty hams, forty loaves of bread and a measure of wine. This is also the period in which the six historic parishes of Andorra (St Julia de Loria, Andorra la Vella, Encamp, Ordino, Canillo & La Massana – Escaldes-Engordany is a recently created parish) were formalised. From this point on, Andorra has been co-ruled by French and Spanish powers (now heads of state), with the exception of the period of the French Revolution during which the French government renounced its claim to Andorra. This was however rectified by Napoleon.

During the late 8th/early 9th century, on Roc d’Enclar we see the construction of the church of San Vincente, and the evolution of the settlement from a simple self-sufficient occupation to a fortified one, complete with a religious centre, four large silos for grain storage, defensive walls and rock cut anthropomorphic burials (15 of the 52 previously mentioned). Below this rock, one finds a site that has only been discovered relatively recently (2007), and it is still subject to differing interpretations in terms of form and function.

A heavily fortified settlement, the Roureda de Margineda has offered up ceramics, bronze and iron artefacts, hearths, coins and a network of interior and exterior walls. There are broadly four phases of occupation, stretching back to the Bronze Age, which saw the construction of silos and some stone buildings with associated ceramics of the period being found in situ. During the 5th – 7th centuries we find evidence of presses which may be related to the viniculture on Roc d’Enclar above. However, it is during the 12th – 13th centuries that the site becomes far more visible, powerful and with the spatial layout that we see today. The site is structured into domestic units with several rooms, around a simple network of ‘streets’ and fortified walls, which was apparently occupied between 1190 and 1288 and was related to the power struggles for Andorra between Urgell and the Counts of Foix (aided by the Viscounts of nearby Castellbo), before the signing of the pariatges. There is a degree of uncertainty whether this site represents a fortified settlement, or a castle/fort, or even some form of extended trading/processing site linked to the settlement atop Roc d’Enclar. However what is certain is that it represents one of the best preserved Medieval archaeological sites in Andorra.

One of the hallmarks of this period in Andorra is the explosion of pre-Romanesque and Romanesque church/chapel building in each parish. The vast majority of religious buildings in Andorra can trace a major part of their construction back to the Romanesque phase, and the density of these chapels and churches built in this style throughout the country (over forty) is unmatched anywhere else. Many also have pre-Romanesque aspects. For example, the church of Santa Coloma (near Roc d’Enclar and Roureda de Margineda) is mentioned in a document written in 839, and its earliest features place it at the beginning of the 9th century, such as gabled walls that rise above the roof, simple flared windows and irregular fittings with lime mortar. Similar features can be found in the church of Sant Vincente d’Enclar. The Romanesque period (roughly 12th century) could be said to be over-represented in Andorra, with Lombard-style bell towers (both round, as at Santa Coloma, and square, as found at Sant Miquel d’Engloasters). The church of Sant Romà de les Bons in Encamp is another example, with its Lombardian apse, stone altar, and beautiful interior frescoes, unusually depicting scenes from rural life such as the droving of livestock, as well as the apocalyptic visions of St John. Canillo’s church of Sant Joan de Caselles is yet another jewel of the Andorran Romanesque, with its sturdy Lombardian square bell tower and stuccoed Christ in Majesty surrounded by murals of the crucifixion featuring Longinus and Stephanus as well as the Sun and Moon. Details on the best churches to visit in each parish will be provided in the following chapters.

The General Council

It was not until the early 15th century that Andorra saw an official form of internal government. In 1419, Andreu d’Alàs petitioned the Francesc de Tovia, Bishop of Urgell, and Count Joan I of Foix for permission to create what was to be the origins of the General Council of Andorra. Permission was granted, and this nascent body was called the ‘Consell de la Terra’ (‘Council of the Earth’). Simultaneously both co-princes granted that within the council might be elected members representing the primary houses or families of Andorra. This is popularly considered to be one of the oldest functioning parliaments in Europe.

These primary families (often the oldest) were known as fires, and were wealthy enough to pay the taxes demanded by the council, which in turn gave them rights to representation and inclusion in the political/legal processes of the council. The poorer families were known as casalers and did not enjoy such rights, and often did not own lands. One document places the ratio of fires to casalers before the 17th century as 179 against 600.

One of the most important sites in Andorra that dates from this period is the only surviving example of a Medieval fortification, the so-called ‘Torre dels Moros’ (Tour of the Moors), whose dating is debated between the 13th and 16th centuries. This former military tour is next to the Romanesque chapel of Sant Romà de les Bons in Encamp, and is built into the rock on which the chapel stands. Some suggest that it may date from the 13th century due to its proximity to the chapel, however, the pariatges of 1288 prohibited any castle building. Others believe that it dates to the 16th century and was erected in response to the incursions of the French Hugenots into Andorra during this time. The tower is square in form with four floors, and loophole windows that allowed projectiles to be fired. Its situation, like the chapel, is a commanding one, with a panoramic view of the valley below and therefore is in an ideal defensive location. The popular association with ‘the Moors’ is not an uncommon one, as many buildings with uncertain origins become linked in folklore to this force, not just in Andorra but across Spain too. As if to underscore this point, a water-tank is carved into the stone and is locally known as the ‘Baño de la Reina Mora’ (‘the Bath of the Moorish Queen’). Rainwater would collect in this basin and be distributed along stone gutters carved into the rock. The basin’s name derives from a local legend, in which under a full moon the ‘Moorish Queen’ came to bath in the basin. Of course, all the men of the local village stole up to spy on her, and such was her beauty that they became enchanted by her and stayed under her spell, hopelessly in love to the end of their days.

Throughout the next two centuries, the Navarre, Aragon, and Catalonia passed between several different lords, and one of the Counts of Foix (Enric III) ascended to the French throne. However, throughout all these turbulent events, Andorra always remained stable within its arrangement of co-sovereignty and even gained some additional judicial privileges. Andorran citizens were, therefore, belonged to a neutral country, owing no military service, war contributions or obligation to aid in occupations of foreign territories, even during the war of the Spanish Succession that so affected much of Catalonia.  In 1715, the Bishop of Urgell Simeó de Guinda signed a decree that Andorra need obey no demands other than those made by the co-princes or the King of France. With the French Revolution, however, a constitutional crisis emerged.

The French Revolution & Napoleon

1789 was the first year in a decade-long program of revolutionary social and political upheaval in France. Four years later in 1793, the French revolutionary government executed the King of France (also a figurehead for Andorra) Louis XVI, and officially rejected the traditional Andorran tribute, declaring it a relic of feudalism and against the principles of revolutionary France. However, more importantly for Andorrans, France also renounced its role in the co-rulership of the country, leaving Andorra undersold control of Spain, an unpopular situation. In 1794, during the war with Spain, French forces entered Andorra and advanced to Soldeu in Canillo with intention of marching to and occupying La Seu d’Urgell. Desperate, several representatives of Andorra sped to Puigcerdà near Girona, where General Chabret of the French Revolutionary forces had his headquarters, and successfully entreated him to abandon this plan.

After the initial rise of Napolean I and during the Napoleonic Wars Andorra remained a neutral state, however, Andorrans petitioned the ruler to restore the pre-Revolutionary arrangement of ‘co-sovereignty’ which came back into effect in 1806. In an ironic twist, given the region’s previous role, Andorra became part of the Puigcerdà district between 1812 and 1813 after the French Empire annexed Catalonia and divided it into four departments. However, this domination of Catalonia by the French was brief, due to General Wellington signing an armistice that prompted the French forces to leave Barcelona.

The Discovery of Andorra

This renewal of Andorra’s traditional co-sovereignty also coincided with a more general interest in the country from its neighbours. Andorra began to receive the first visits from inquisitive walkers and travellers, eager to explore this little-known Pyrenean refuge and write about it, and even a comic opera was written about the country by the (then) famous Fromental Halévy in 1848. Now forgotten, ‘Le Val d’Andorre’ was a huge hit and actually saved the Opéra-Comique in Paris from the ruin it was facing, playing 165 times. It was also performed in Leipzig (1849), London (1850) and Madrid (1852), however, it would not be performed in Andorra, and then only in part, until 2001. However, inspiration was not the only reason for visiting the country during this period. In Spain a violent conflict was raging, the Carlist Wars, and both liberal and Carlist refugees sought shelter in Andorra’s valleys. It was at this time that the Catalan Carlist Josep Ignasi Dalmau i Baquer, nephew of the Bishop of Urgell, wrote the first widely circulated book about the history of Andorra.

Between 1842 and 1876 the pre-industrial economy of Andorra received a boost in the form of the Rossell Forge (now a museum and industrial heritage centre), whose iron ingots became much in demand within Catalonia and created an alternative source of local income outside of the typical agriculture/stock breeding and, of course, smuggling. Further reforms came in the guise of a rich Andorran landowner, Guillem de Plandolit i d’Areny, who headed the ‘Nova Reforma’ movement. This movement aimed at reforming the General Council to give greater participation to the peoples of Andorra, increasing the number of councillors to 24 and each one to be elected by the ‘sindics’ (government officers). This was ratified by the Bishop of Urgell in 1866 and Napoleon III in 1869. At this point the main income in Andorra was derived from agriculture, livestock and some surreptitious smuggling – an industry that is the source of wry pride in locals even today! In Sispony one can find the Casa Rull and in Ordino the Casa d’Areny-Plandolit (where the aforementioned Guillem lived). Both are excellent examples of landowner class and aristocratic houses respectively and are described in detail in their parish chapters in this book. By the end of the century, the first telephone and telegraph lines had been installed in the country, and this truly opened up Andorra to the precursors of the tourism it enjoys today, which would move it away from a reliance on agriculture and livestock.

Expedition Report – Roca del Corb

Expedition Report – Roca del Corb, Peramola

Disclaimer – Under Spanish law, apparently, it is forbidden to take photos of archaeological artefacts found ‘in situ’ or even to describe them, if one does not have a permit for archaeological prospection. So, it should be formally stated here that (for legal reasons) any descriptions of surface artefacts here are based on hearsay from other sources unrelated to Perennial Pyrenees.


(View down towards Peramola, with Roca del Corb on the right and Roques de Sant Honorat on the left)

Recently a visit was made to the Peramola municipality near Oliana in the Alt Urgell, Catalonia, to examine some fascinating archaeological sites. This area is heavily wooded and is situated at the very beginning of the Pyrenean foothills. Stretching away down to Barcelona lies a far gentler undulating series of hills, so gentle in fact, that one can just about make out the imposing mountain of Montserrat in the distance, rising impressively out of its surroundings. The village of Peramola itself possesses a wonderful Lombard Romanesque church in the cemetery, dedicated to Sant Miquel de Paramola, and the church of Santa Maria de Castell-llebre, which stands on a rocky spur and has an unusual square based belfry.

The whole region offers a wide and excellent set of archaeological and even palaeontological sites, and one of the main reasons for this is the presence of the River Segre that flows through it offering good communication and trading possibilities. Sites range from one of the world’s largest fossilised dinosaur nest in Europe (just to the north at Coll de Nargo) to prehistoric engravings and rock shelters/cave sites, Medieval graffiti, Romanesque churches and troglodyte dwellings that were also used more recently to shelter refugees in the Spanish civil war. The nearby town of Oliana is said to owe its origins to a Roman colony, and possesses a very fine Romanesque church and a castle.

(Map of the region showing Roca del Corb in relation to Roques de Sant Honorat and the Rumbau river. Taken from https://farm2.staticflickr.com/1619/25920884300_f89e67310b_b.jpg)

In a nearby, heavily wooded valley, The Roca del Corb (‘Rock of the Crow’) and Roques de Sant Honorat (‘Rocks of Saint Honorat’) are popular with walkers and rock climbers alike due to their unusual shape and excellent views, and for possessing the largest natural rock bridge in Catalonia. Below them in a ravine, the Rumbau river flows south east down towards the Segre. Due to the heavy vegetation, steep inclines and multi-hued stones that litter the floor (a mixture of riverbed sediment and washed stones that have hardened into a concrete like deposit), little to no field-walking or archaeological surveying has taken place here, despite the obvious presence of some highly interesting sites (recorded by Catalan archaeological services). The Roca del Corb was first occupied in Prehistory and has seen sporadic settlement in various forms ever since (1). Given the abundance of possible rock shelters and caves around the Roca and in the ravine below this is hardly surprising, especially with the Rumbau river at hand and the surrounding forests offering hunting and foraging possibilities. At the base of Roca del Corb lies a troglodyte house (‘Casa del Corb’) built around a cave in the rockface. Its origins are unknown, but it is recorded as being inhabited up to the early 20th century. The interior is 20m by 25m and has a well-preserved oven. Records indicate the site was first inhabited during the Neolithic, which given its situation (shelter, visibility, resources) is unsurprising (2).


(The Chapel of San Salvador, Roca del Corb)

Perched atop Roca del Corb is one of the smallest Romanesque chapels in Catalonia, dedicated to San Salvador. Occupying one of the needle-like formations of the Roca, its precarious position offers an amazing view and a truly unique setting, with the cliffs plunging down 50 feet on three sides. The church has been dated to the late 11th century, and is built in the Lombard Romanesque style, although it is currently in a ruinous state with no surviving roof (1). The apse holds a niche in which a modern sculpture of the Virgin rests, and a small window in the centre of the apse looks out to the north. A fascinating feature of the church (albeit unintentional on the part of the builders) is the use within the walls of two large chunks of a Neolithic mill/quern stone made of granite.


This poses an interesting question; seeing as the location of the chapel makes it unlikely that anything other than (very literally) immediately available stone would have been used during construction, these fragments must have been found around the Roca del Corb. This would, therefore, indicate a food processing site either on or around Roca del Corb, which leads to further speculation about Neolithic settlements and early agricultural activity in the same area. On another plateau of the Roca de Corb, I have been informed that a fragment of sandstone which strongly suggests the shape of a grinding/quern stone has recently been sighted (a definite circular curvature on the outside, worn smooth and ‘dish’ shaped on the interior – diameter uncertain). Other finds on this plateau adjacent to the chapel have been said to include fragments of possibly Roman pottery, a blue gaming piece, glass fragments and ever traces of iron, leading to the suggestion of a possible metallurgy site. The great mystery is that this site is almost inaccessible – only now possible through the use of a climbing chain – so the alleged presence of all these finds (including those relating to industry and food processing) is peculiar, to say the least.


(Saxifraga longifolia)

An interesting aside is the presence of ‘Corona del Rey’ (‘Kings Crown’ or ‘Pyrenean Encrusted Saxifrage’ – Latin: Saxifraga longifolia) along much of the Roca del Corb. This alpine perennial is very hardy and can grow up to a foot across before putting out a stem that forms a cascade of white blossom, announcing the plant’s death. This plant has ‘medicinal’ qualities that relate to abortion, and local folklore tells that it was favoured by queens so that they may eradicate any evidence of ‘extra-curricular activity’ whilst their husbands were away fighting or touring the kingdom!

At a lower level, the Col du Mu links the rock formations of Roca del Corb and Roques de Sant Honorat. Allegedly there are the remains of a cremation site here which may date back to the Bronze age, with detectable burnt soil, fragments of cremated bone and small flecks of bronze detectable on the surface. However, the combination of neither preservation nor excavation efforts and the passage of vehicles (not to mention walkers/climbers) over this tiny site has rendered it crushed, and no doubt the stratigraphy is highly compacted or disturbed.


(An anthropomorphic tomb cut into the rock)

In the ravine below these two rocks and the Col lies a very curious site indeed. Amongst the heavy tree cover, boulders and smoke blackened caves/shelters lie a series of anthropomorphic tombs cut into the rock-face of the Col. These tombs are commonly known as Olerdolana (named after their prevalence in the Olerdola municipality outside Barcelona), or rupestres anthropomorphic in Spain, and are present across the Peninsula as well as in Britain, France and further afield. They are primarily identified in Iberia with the Late Antique/Medieval period, which may place them within the Visigothic or Frankish periods, especially the former given the popularity of this necropolis style with this culture. The local name for this site is ‘Cementiri del Moros del Coll de Mu’ (The Cemetery of the Moors of Coll de Mu’), however anything which is slightly unknown in terms of origin tends to be ascribed in folklore to ‘the Moors’, so this reference should be taken with a pinch of salt (2). There appears to be a red staining around the head areas, which may be remains of some form of paint (it does not appear to be linked to an oxidation process or staining of the rock naturally). Five tombs are present in this necropolis however no remains are visible within them, filled as they are with compacted soil, stones, vegetation and other detritus. No doubt they would benefit from sampling.


(Two more examples of the anthropomorphic tombs)

Further along, reaching into the rock-face of Roques de Sant Honorat is the cave known as the ‘cathedral’. Some of the walls are blackened with what may be soot, however, the extensive interior of this cave is overgrown and nothing remains to indicate occupation. Yet, it would seem an ideal spot for some form of habitation, occupying a prime site that is sheltered, extensive (perfect for spatial allocation in terms of food processing, sleeping, even industry), near an excellent water source and easily defended. Allegedly some fragments of what appears to be crudely made Medieval pottery have been spotted on its floor, which combined with the soot-stained walls may indicate some form of presence here during this period – possibly hunters rather than herdsmen, or indeed there may have been some form of industry down in this ravine that we are unaware of now due to the heavy vegetation obscuring all evidence.


(View out across the ravine and Roques de Sant Honorat from the highest plateau on Roca del Corb)

Evidently both the Roca del Corb, Roques de Sant Honorat and the ravine below with its river has seen a high amount of human occupation and exploitation throughout the ages, which is to be expected given the resources/aspect of the sites, and the proliferation of similar sites throughout the region (and indeed Catalonia as a whole). Further studies of these sites would yield useful information in terms of shifting patterns of land use, and potentially comparisons could be drawn between settlement/exploitation patterns in these Pyrenean foothills and the High Pyrenees. The presence of the anthropomorphic tombs, however, is of great interest, and points towards the question of why choose such a place for internment in such a deliberate and labour intensive manner? Was there a nearby settlement associated with these burials, as surely Peramola (for instance) is far too great a distance to carry bodies through such vegetation and inclines for internment? Were they related to as yet undiscovered troglodyte dwellings, such as Casa del Corb? A mystery indeed, and one to which that landscape is not going to yield any easy answers.


1.     http://patmapa.gencat.cat/web/guest/patrimoni/arquitectura?articleId=HTTP://GAUDI_ELEMENTARQUITECTONIC_15685
2.     http://www.espeleoindex.com/crearPDF.php?id=1443
3.     http://invarque.cultura.gencat.cat/FitxaGeneral?index=1392&consulta=MSUxK3ByYXQgZGUgY29tdGUlMistMSU%3D&codi=10889


Weekly Article #11 – A Brief Archaeological History of Andorra (Part I)

This week’s article is slightly different, being an extract from a forthcoming guidebook  (in time for Christmas with any luck) dealing with the archaeology and culture of Andorra. In this extract, a broad brush archaeological history of Andorra’s human occupation is provided, from the Palaeolithic to the Visigoths highlighting some of the best sites …


The Retreat of the Glaciers

As the ice sheets began to melt and withdraw from the deep valleys that they carved out, the small pockets of human inhabitants began to emerge from their isolated refuges in the Pyrenees. As these nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes began to roam the emerging landscape, looking for fresh game and foraging for edible plants, a small seasonal band discovered a comfortable and vast rock overhang in what we now know as Andorra. Discovered in 1959 by the godfather of Andorran archaeology, Pere Canturri, this site, the rock shelter ‘Balma de la Margineda’ dates back to the Epipalaeolithic period, and is the first known evidence of human occupation in the Andorran valley (Sant Julia de Loria parish). It is thought that these settlers came from the Ariege and the Segre regions, and used this rock shelter as a seasonal summer camp. The climate of snow, harsh winds and rains would not have rendered it useful during the Autumn, Winter, or early Spring. It is also worth noting that the valley floor at this time would have been dominated by the river.


(Balma de la Margineda, taken from http://www.jordicasamajor.com)

Located in the middle between the two boundaries of the Pyrenees (now Catalonia and the Ariege/Aude), it acted as an ideal stepping stone for travelling hunters and tribes. Another helpful feature of the site was that it offered excellent resources for hunting, with eel, trout, chamois, boars, deer, and goats roaming the surrounding mountainsides and forests in abundance, as well as some competitors in the form of bears, wolves and lynx.

Material culture from this initial Palaeolithic period is slim, however that which survives belongs firmly to the Azilian culture, an Epipalaeolithic industry rooted in northern Spain and Southern France. This culture follows the more refined (artistically) Magdalanian culture, and the cruder aspect to the materials produced is thought to derive from the melting of ice sheets reducing available resources, both for nutrition and also for tool manufacture. In terms of the Epipalaeothlic finds at Balma de la Margineda, archaeologists discovered harpoon points (which are very typical of the Azilian industry, and presumably were used for trout and eel fishing), flint spearheads engraved with abstract figures, and geometric microliths used as arrowheads. Sadly, none of the items are available for the public to view, as they are still under analysis by the Cultural Dept. of Andorra, which is preparing a National Museum at the time of writing.

Moving into the Mesolithic, the situation at Balma Margineda seems to remain broadly the same, with the site remaining seasonal and occupied by nomadic population groups, however evidence of another site emerges a short distance away, that of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys (now a UNESCO site). These two valleys have an immensely long history of human exploitation and management, whose beginnings reach back to the middle of the Mesolithic period in the form of a circular stone structure.


(Madriu-Perifata-Claror Valley – photo by Perennial Pyrenees)

It is during the Neolithic however when we begin to see substantial changes in both these sites, and newly established ones throughout Andorra. In caves near the settlements of Pal, Arinsal, La Massana and at Balma del Llunsi (Encamp), evidence has been discovered of human occupation dating back to this period. At Balma de la Margineda we find the grave of a woman, the oldest human remains found in the country, in which were placed ceramics, arrowheads and lithics. Other ceramic fragments have been found that were typical of the Neolithic Revolution, when communities turned from a nomadic existence to a sedentary one, fuelled by early forays into agriculture and land management. The population here increased during the 6th millennium BC, and the site appears to be used partially as a cattle enclosure before being largely abandoned in favour of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valleys. Several round stone structures are built, likely functioning as huts and a mixture of early agricultural cultivation and hunting/gathering sustains the population. Traces of wheat and barley have been found by archaeologists, as have the remains of goats, sheep and oxen, and archaeobotanical evidence for the clearing of areas of pine forest indicate that these animals had managed grazing areas.

Other sites in Andorra display a complex culture emerging in the valleys, with funerary monuments existing at Juberri (Sant Julia de Loria) and Segudet (Ordino). These contain extensive grave goods, including bracelets, bangles, and ceramic ornaments, and these ‘cist’ monuments (a stone burial chamber) also contained pottery. One pot in the Segudet burial contained a pot within which traces of various cereals, milk and even honey were found, displaying evidence for a both budding land exploitation and, along with the presence of non-local materials, possible contact with other communities in the region. Votive axes made from serpentine and other items fashioned from variscite suggest trade with (for example) the mines of Can Tintorer in Gava, 135km to the south of Andorra. The funerary practices of sites in neighbouring Catalonia and Languedoc suggest that the bodies may have been left in grottos to rot and be stripped of their flesh by animals before the remaining bones were interred in the cist and walled in.

Pollen analysis indicates that as the Neolithic wore on, the lowlands of Andorra began to see pastoralism and cultivation, including the practices of forest clearance and using fire as a management tool.


(Feixa del Moro Neolithic cist burial at Juberri – taken from http://www.dolmen.wordpress.com)

From Bronze to Iron

The Bronze Age in Andorra was a mixed economy, with predominantly livestock farming but also a persistence of small scale hunting and gathering. As the Neolithic period came to a close, several small settlements became established between what is now Santa Coloma and Andorra la Vella, just above the valley floor, which was still largely occupied by the river and various lagoons and had a ‘prairie’ aspect to it (the valley sides were still heavily wooded). These seven sites are known as the ‘Estacions del Cedre I – VII’ (Cedar Stations I – VII), and occupy the sunnier side of the valley. These small encampments have yielded a small amount of artefacts, including polished stone axes and ceramic materials decorated in styles typical of the early Bronze Age, many of which find comparisons with other sites of a similar date in the Pyrenees (e.g. Bescaran, Grotte Montou, Les Escaldes, Llo, Grotte d’Enlene, Cova Negra etc.) A small hand-operated millstone was also found with traces of wheat on its surface, indicating a small level of agricultural activity around the Cedre sites. During the early Bronze Age a new culture that shared similar features with the Polada culture in Italy began to emerge in the South of France, Catalonia and the Pyrenees, and the occupants of the Cedre sites began to integrate aspects of this culture into their own, specifically in terms of ceramic vessels. A typical feature of the Polada culture are the cylindrical protuberances on the handles, which serve to make gripping easier – these begin to appear on the vessels of the Cedre camps during this time, as do decorative ‘buttons’ on the vessel body. A bread oven was also discovered by archaeologists at ‘Cedre IV’, a typical conical affair built from branches and dried mud (the imprints of the pine needles could still be seen) that bears great resemblance to furnaces used by the Berber tribes in the Atlas mountains. Within the furnace were found several chunks of granite forming a partial floor on which the bread could lie.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, the camps at Les Cedres were abandoned, for the likely reason that the organisation and way of living had changed beyond the need for these small outposts, evolving into more complex settlements that demanded greater space. It is also possible that the strategic territorial uses that these small outposts provided were no longer relevant, and thus their function became outdated.

Another feature of the late Bronze Age that made itself felt in Andorra is an abundance of rock carvings – many of which can be seen today and have Medieval carvings alongside them, providing an unusual continuity of use. The best examples of these carvings (and directions of how to find them) will be provided later in this book. Many of these carvings have motifs which can be compared to very famous sites such as Val Camonica in the Alps, and other sites throughout the Pyrenees, Ariege and the Cantabrian region of Spain. Without a doubt, the most famous of these carvings are found on the upper surface of the ‘Roc de les Bruixes’ (Rock of the Witches) in the parish of Canillo. Overlooking the sanctuary of Our Lady of Meritxell, this site has a wide range of motifs engraved upon its surface, including pentacles, stylised stars, anthropomorphic figures, networks of deeply incised lines and many more. On its eastern side are representations of warriors that are thought to be Medieval in date. Other examples of Bronze Age carvings can be found in the petroglyphs of Sornas, Montalari (Les Bons), La Gonarda (Ordino), Puy (la Massana) and Mas del Diumenge (Vilars), as well as a host of incised (Medieval) crosses on various rocks throughout the country, and undoubtedly many more as yet undiscovered due to Andorra’s mountainous terrain.

Further up the Andorran valley, near Encamp, we find another site with Bronze Age origins (but its fullest expression was in the Iron Age). Roc l’Oral has yielded a wealth of artefacts. Established in the Late Bronze Age, Roc l’Oral couldn’t be more different in terms of aspect to the Cedres sites. Situated on a cliff overlooking the river and valley path of Encamp, it occupies a far more defensive prospect and at its base lies the previously mentioned Balma dej Llunci. Identifiable now by a long strip of cultivatable land and protected from erosion by surrounding rocks, local folklore tells of great treasures buried here and wells sunk deep to access the river below. In reality the only holes discovered are made by moles, and in these molehills and tunnels have been found a plethora of archaeological material, due to the disturbances to the stratigraphy from successive ploughing. Numerous bronze objects have been found at this site, including bracelets with incised decoration, a fibula brooch, various pins and 2500 ceramic sherds. There is also evidence that the site crossed over into the Iron Age, with iron needles being discovered. The most exciting find however is undoubtedly the bronze foot of a (likely) votive vessel that has a probable Roman origin, dated to between the 2nd and 1st century BC. Comparisons with other Roman votive vessels revealed that this was likely taken from a sanctuary or church, and a ring attached on the top of the foot may have allowed it to be worn as an amulet.

This raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the interactions between the proto-historic populations of Andorra, and the Romans, who by the 3rd century BC had begun to extend their empire through Gaul, across the Pyrenees and into the Iberian Peninsula (although this conquest would not be completed until the Cantabrian wars in 19 BC). The ‘Via Cerdanya’, ‘Via Augusta’ and other Roman route ways would have facilitated trade and communications with Romanised populations. The ‘Andorran’ population is referred to by Polybius as belonging to the tribe of the ‘Andosins’, and is recorded by the historian as attacking the passage of Hannibal through the Pyrenees in 218 BC. The Andosins are said to have existed between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, and some experts believe that they spoke an Iberian language, as did many of the tribes in the Pyrenees, possibly influenced in their language and script by the arrival of Iron Age Greeks along the Catalan coastline in 750 BC. However, other experts claim that they spoke a derivative of Basque. In addition, the surviving material culture of the Andosins does not appear to resemble particularly the assemblages found at other Iberian sites, so the degree to which they (and indeed other Pyrenean tribes) could accurately be described as ‘Iberian’ is in doubt. As with so many of these historical questions, we may never truly know the answer. Either way, the collection of people that lived within and around the Andorran valleys became known as the Andosins and began to be seen within a collective identity.

Through the early Iron Age the Andosins lived in relative peace within Andorra, with the degree of archaeological (and actual) Roman presence being a hotly debated topic. It is said that the hot springs in Escaldes (that now fuel the huge Caldea spa) were frequented by Romans, however there is no firm evidence of this despite Andorra falling under the broad Roman territory of Hispania Citerior. However, excavations at the Romanesque church of Sant Vinceç d’Enclar (Andorra la Vella) have yielded evidence of Roman interaction. This site (the ‘Roc d’Enclar’) is known to have been occupied since the 3rd Century AD, and coins bearing the image of Emperors Galienus (260 – 268), Magnus Maximus (382 – 388) and Honorius (395 – 423) have been discovered in the archaeological deposits. Whilst this does not prove an actual Roman presence in the Andorran valleys, it does point towards firm contact and possibly trade with either Roman or Romano-Iberian populations.

March of the Visigoths

In the early 5th century AD a momentous change was to remold the political and social fabric of western Europe. The Visigoths (‘Western Goths’) who had settled near the Danube in Roman territory became unhappy with their treatment at the hands of local Roman governors and rebelled. This started a chain of events that would begin to unravel the Roman Empire in the west and saw the Visigoths sack Rome and move into Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula, both wresting territory from the Romans and eventually establishing their own kingdom whose centre was in Toulouse. When the Huns invaded Gaul, the Visigoths turned their attention from challenging Rome to beating back the Attila’s forces, and having done this they began to move into Spain. By the early 6th century the Visigoths had lost most of their Gaulish territory to another ‘barbarian’ horde, the Franks, and were established almost exclusively in Spain.

The Visigothic presence in Andorra is invisible, at least archaeologically. There may have been passage of Visigothic peoples through the valleys however there is no legacy of their being in Andorra in the archaeological record. This is not surprising due to the relative isolation (or ‘comfortable isolation’) of settlements in many Pyrenean valleys, however one important site does begin to develop during this period in Andorra, that of the aforementioned Roc d’Enclar in the Enclar valley. Previous phases of occupation and exploitations saw a small Bronze Age and Iron Age presence, and some evidence of viniculture (i.e. terracing, sherds of glass amphora and the remains of a rough granite press) between the 4th and 6th centuries. However, in between the 5th and 7th centuries, changes began to occur on this site. New areas began to be cleared near the terraces, and it has been suggested based on the archaeological deposits that foundation walls and structures were built using wooden props and trellis branches covered with raw clay and straw. Ceramics associated with cooking were also found, as well as a staggering 52 burials that ranged from simple pits to stone tomb-like structures. Carbon 14 dating and documentary evidence from the 9th and 10th centuries point towards these burials being from between the 6th and 8th centuries. The still extant old Roman route ways such as the Via Cerdanya and Via Augusta, combined with numerous other more localised route networks, would have facilitated the trading of goods such as the wine produced at Roc d’Enclar, and experts believe that by the 7th century this site along with others across the Andorran valley would have been well linked into existing trade networks throughout the Pyrenees, Catalonia, the Cerdagne and beyond. The path created by the Valira river that runs through Andorra down to La Seu d’Urgell and beyond would have been of particular importance. Political and military shifts in power and territory during the 5th to 7th centuries saw the building of hill forts and high altitude villas for defensive purposes in the Visigothic Narbonne, and some believe that the development of Roc d’Enclar might be linked to this trend too, becoming a self-sufficient and easily defendable settlement.

Next: Charlemagne, the Romanesque style and power games for control of Andorra by Fois and Urgell! More soon…

Weekly Article #10 – Roc de les Bruixes

This week saw an early morning expedition to the ‘Roc de les Bruixes’ (Witches’ Rock) in the parish of Canillo. This rock is covered with intriguing carvings and lies in the forest directly overlooking the Meritxell sanctuary (see Weekly Article #8). Recent snowfall had covered the pastureland through which the trail led, with birds of prey wheeling overhead and a mixture of jays, blue tits and thrushes singing in the trees; a very lovely start to the day! The rock itself is buried deep in the woods, and the iron sign that indicates its location off the path and up the mountain is long gone, so it remains blissfully secluded and protected from casual visits.


The legend attached to the rock is a particularly lurid one, even by the standards of Witchlore. The carvings are in fact said to be prehistoric, but popular folklore attributes them to the following event. Frequently witches would gather upon the rock and cast spells, and at times the Devil would appear uninvited and interrupt their work. Eventually, they grew so irritated with his interruptions that, on one occasion, they took him in their arms and hurled him off the rock, and the carvings are the scratches left by his long talons and he struggled to find a purchase on the stone before crashing into the forest below.

Another piece of folklore from the area tells of a man returning one night from Encamp to his home in Canillo by the crossroads near Meritxell sanctuary, who suddenly spied a woman standing completely immobile under the rays of the moon. He greeted her politely but was shocked to see that she was, to put it bluntly, topless, and whilst she wore a long black skirt he couldn’t keep his eyes off her chest! She noticed him and walked quietly towards the man, with her arms outstretched and long black hair blowing in the wind. The man took a step back nervously but the lady told him not to be afraid, and that he should come towards her. The man considered that either she was a phantom, or that she was quite mad, there being no other reason in his mind for standing topless under the moon at midnight. He wanted to flee, but could not, and soon she was standing before him. Closing his eyes to break the spell, he took several steps back, but then he felt himself come into contact with something soft and warm – the lady had appeared behind him! She drew him into an embrace and as soon as he felt her warm skin on his cheek his fear left him. Suddenly he felt himself falling, and the woman was laughing at the sherds of rock that became kicked up by his flailing feet as he seemed to be tumbling down a precipice. At that he cried out ‘Our Lady of Meritxell, save this poor sinner!’, where upon he opened his eyes and found himself in bed with a cry. His wife awoke and demanded to know what was going on, whereupon he told her the whole nightmare. Less than sympathetic, she berated him for having too large a dinner and it sitting heavily in him, thereby giving bad dreams. He nodded his assent in the darkness and eventually drifted back off to sleep. However, when he woke he found in his right hand a torn piece of the black skirt worn by the mysterious lady of his dreams, and the poor wretch never had a full night’s sleep again (Patlapin, 2008).



(The ‘Roc de les Bruixes’)

The situation of the rock, chosen no doubt for its slab-like horizontal quality (enabling carving with great ease), roughly 5m by 3m, and its imposing position above the valley floor, is interesting, as it is not easily accessible or even visible apart from when very nearby due to the forest. One interesting aspect of the rock’s location is its proximity to the Meritxell sanctuary, or rather, chronologically, the proximity of the sanctuary to the rock. It is highly coincidental that these two sites should be quite to close, and one wonders if the siting of the Meritxell sanctuary directly beneath the rock (on its footprint would have been impossible) was an effort to stamp Christian authority on a valley whose carvings lingered in the population’s folklore, memory and potentially folk-practises. This is, however, conjecture on my part, with no evidence, merely based on comparisons with other pre-Christian sites upon or adjacent to whom a church is built.

Many of the linear carvings seem to have been made by a sharp tool with a wide centre section, likely through wearing the rock down with a forward and backward motion, hence the depth in the centre of the carvings. The carvings on the rock have been compared to those of Olargues in the Midi, and diverse sites found in both the Pyrenees-Orientales and the Ariege, and have been said to be a development of their style. Similar symbols and figures can be found in sites such as Mont Bego and Val Camonica (Alps), Cantabrian schematic art, Galician petroglyphs and Iberian schematic art. What we are dealing with it seems is an iconographical canon that has its counterparts from the Alps to the Western coast of the Iberian peninsula.

The main subjects that are represented are pines, arrows, kites, pentacles, ‘grill’ shapes, ‘hopscotch-like’ grids, networks of lines, radiating lines from a central point and a rough series of cupolas or bowl-shaped indentations. Interestingly, the majority of the lines tend to run roughly East/West, unified by rarer North/South incisions through their middle. On the Eastern side of the rock there is an extraordinary carving of two men, one of which is holding what appears to be a sword/spear. Overlying these figures is a mess of lines which appear to be an attempt to destroy them. The godfather of Andorra archaeology, Pere Canturri, suggested that these figures were, in fact, Medieval, due to their depicted costumes of skirts, helmets, and weapons, and posited that this may be a reference to the wars between the Count of Foix and the Bishop of Urgell in the 12th century (Canturri, 2003).


(The potentially Medieval carvings on the rock’s eastern side)

The comparison to the carvings found on the ‘Peyro Escrito’ (‘Written Stone’) of Olargues is interesting, these being Bronze Age in date, which helps to place the activity of the Roc de Bruixes in an historical context. Both feature an extensive series of incised lines, radiating lines from a central point, pentacles (rough) and the peculiar ‘hopscotch’ carvings. French archaeologist Pierre Campmajo has proposed that some of the carvings on the Roc de Bruixes may be remnants of an Iberian script, similar to those found in the Cerdanya, and when one examines the carvings studies in the Cerdanya there are certainly some similarities between certain carvings (Campmajo & Ferrer i Jane, 2010). Another site nearer to Andorra is that of Tossal de Cava in the Alt-Urgell region, which has a number of carvings which are extraordinarily similar to those found on Roc de les Bruixes.


(The ‘cupola’ indentations, pooling snow in their centres)

The concave ‘cup’ marks are worth noting, as four of them form a rough line, and each one from which a linear incision leads out into the main body of the stone (these ‘cups’ are highlighted by a pine needle, the snow made for poor photography!). These may be anthropomorphic representations.

(The ‘pine’ motifs)

There are also several carvings which are said to represent pine trees, which is a logical interpretation given the fact that they surround the rock.


(Potential sylised ‘star’)

Another motif is this ‘grill’ or ‘kite’ shape, which may potentially be a stylised star, certainly the likelihood of these carvings being a kite is rather slim, surely!

Canturri suggests that one coagulation of lines might be a schematic representation of an Andorran house, based on similar carvings and their interpretations in Val Camonica, the Paris Basin and also in Olargues.


(Some of the many pentacles on the rock)

It is the pentacles however which particularly capture one’s attention, and several can be found on the rock. A fascinating discussion of the meanings behind pentacle symbolism in Western rock art (Coimbra, 2011) provides us with some potential interpretations as to their meaning/function. One particular interpretation which Coimbra applies to a site at the Coll de la Font Roja (Caixas, East Pyrenees, France) is of extreme interest, as it describes a pentacle in relation to a ‘figure composed of ten rays with a central cupmark and a kind of tail that may represent a meteor or comet.’ (Coimbra, 2011, 125). This is suggested to be a recording either of an astronomical event, and another carving on the same rock of a rayed figure, although this time with no tail, is interpreted by Abelanet as a solar symbol (1990). On the Roc de Bruixes, one finds three of these ray-like figures, often with pentacles nearby, so could this indeed be a representation either of the sun, astronomical events or perhaps even a form of religious symbolism, seeing as in prehistory we find a close kinship between astronomy and religion?



(The ‘ray’ motif)

As is so often the case with rock art, the truth as to the meanings of the carving may never be known concretely. However, comparative studies with other sites of a similar date such as Val Camonica reveal a curious set of potentially ‘universalist’ symbols that tend towards those above and those below. The need to inscribe representations of ourselves, the world around us, and very possibly the stars, points towards a common and ancient desire to place ourselves, through art, in a relationship with the cosmos. Linking this into folkloric tales of the supernatural, of witches influencing storms and otherworldly beings appearing in broad moonlight, it is easy to see how sites such as Roc de les Bruixes can become symbols of man’s desire for influence over nature, and for knowledge of his position in the grander scheme of things. Whilst the rock may or may not have featured in genuine acts of witchcraft in the parish Canillo (although it certainly does in its folk memory), it seems very likely to have occupied a position of importance for observances in the archaic past. For that reason, it is perhaps a blessing that it remains relatively hidden in the deep woods, watching over the valley, accessible only to those who have a knowledge of the land.


Works cited:

Abélanet, J. 1990 ‘Les roches gravées nord catalanes’ in Terra Nostra 5, 101–209. Centre d’Etudes Préhistoriques Catalanes, Université de Perpignan, Prada.

Campmajo, P & Crabol, D. 2009. Les gravures rupestres de Cerdagne (Pyrenees Catalanes). Quelques elements pour la chronologies et une approche smbolique. Archeo, Vol. 66, no. 24, 61 – 78.

Campmajo, P & Ferrer i Jane, J. 2010. Le nouveau corpus d’inscriptions Iberiques rupestres de la Cerdagne (1): Premiers resultats. Serta Palaeohispanica J. de Hoz Palaeohispanica 10. 249 – 274.

Canturri, P. 2003. Els gravats prehistórics de les Valls d’Andorra, in Gonzalez-Perez, J (Ed) Actes del Ier Congrés Internacional de gravats rupestres i murals : homenatge a Lluís Díez-Coronel. 23- 27 November 1992, Lleida. Institut d’Estudis Iler- dencs, Lleida. 619-634.

Coimbra, F. 2011. ‘The symbolism of the pentagram in West European rock art: A semiotic approach.’ In Papers from the XXIV Valcamonica Symposium.122 – 129. Donwloadable here: http://www.ccsp.it/web/INFOCCSP/VCS%20storico/vcs2011pdf/coimbra.pdf

Mas, D. 1977. ‘El Roc de les Bruixes: Noves aportacions als gravats rupestres andorrans’ in Quaderns d’ Estudis Andorrans. No. 2, 5-31

Patlapin, J. Sorcieres et Sorciers dans le Pyrenees: Recits et Legendes. Urrugne: Editions Pimientos.

More (and better!) photos of these carvings can be found here: http://jordicasamajor.nirudia.com/3600




Weekly Article #9 – Traces of the Old Pyrenean Gods

Mask of Montserie

(The Mask of Montserie)

Having focussed on the Marian cult of Our Lady of Meritxell last week that spans from the 12th century to the present, let us address the balance by briefly examining some of the Pre-Christian deities that were worshipped along the valleys and woodlands of the Pyrenees. Who were they, and how they were absorbed into/coexisted alongside the later Roman pantheon that arrived via the Roman Empire?

The Gods worshipped in the Pyrenees prior to the arrival of the Romans continued to be venerated for a long time after the region became integrated with the roman empire. The inhabitants mixed their prayers between the traditional Gods and the newly arrived Roman ones, in order to ensure their own protection, a spiritual hedging of bets. The Romans brought their culture, language and Gods to the Pyrenees. The latter could be said to have largely remained relegated to the cities, leaving, with some exceptions, the world of rural local divinities still intact in the more remote Pyrenean valleys. Throughout all Roman territories one of the fundamental (and indeed obligatory) cults was that of the Imperial cult. The Imperial cult was not the deification of the reigning emperor, but rather the joint celebration of both Rome and the emperor. The latter was responsible for a perfect world, personified by Rome, where he reigned while peace existed within the Empire and between gods and men. This allowed the Imperial cult to exist (and be enforced) alongside local pantheons and imported Roman pantheons without being at the exclusion of venerating other divinities.

The contact between the local Pyrenean Gods and the Roman Pantheon brought about a mixing of divinities and a sort of assimilation. Local divinities became hidden or amalgamated with their Roman counterparts under a Latin name. For example, the god ‘Leherennus’ became known as ‘Leherennus Mars’, particularly around the Ardiege commune (Haute-Garonne) where all inscriptions mention Leherennus in connection with Mars. Other gods emerged out of this melting pot, such as ‘Fagus’, a god of Beech trees, known from four inscriptions found in the Haute-Pyrenees where there are numerous beech forests. Interestingly, this area’s language has been described as Proto-Basque rather than Celtic, whereas ‘Fagus’ is the Latin term for Beech, indicating that he was simply renamed under a Latin term rather than his previous no-doubt indigenous epithet.

Sacaze (1885) was convinced in his ‘Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees’ that the Pyrenean being ‘Tantugou’ held a similar role to the forest guardians of Roman myth. In Luchonaisse mythology, Tantugou appears as a tall bearded old man, dressed in a hooded tunic with animal skins, and armed with a club – similar to the Aragonese ‘Silvan’ figure across the border, whose name bears more than a hint of Latin influence. His role is typically to protect crops, flocks, and the secrets of nature, ensuring that no thieves of these things go unpunished. Tantugou is associated with the Gallo-Celtic god Sucellos, himself a bearded pastoral god who roams the land, hooded (de Marliave & Petuze, 1990).

From inscriptions found across the Pyrenees, we know of at least forty-five names of Pyrenean deities that are present in the archaeological record, typically on funerary monuments and, most commonly, votive stone altars. A few, such as ‘Xuban’ (found on an altar near Comminges and Arbas in Gascon territory in an inscription which refers to him as ‘God Xuban’) and ‘Edelat’ (found in a single inscription on a votive altar in Benque, in the Haute-Garonne department, possibly a Latin name for a local god) occur only once. It has been suggested that Xuban may have been associated with a local mountain (de Marliave, 1993). An inscription referring to ‘Dianae et Horolati et Garre deo’ has been found at the foot of the Gar mountain, with ‘Horolati’ possibly referring to an eponymous god of the Ore village, and ‘Garre’ referring to a god of the local Gar mountain (Sacaze, 1885). The village of Saint-Pe-d’Ardat has an inscription ‘Artehe deo’, which forms an interesting picture of the village’s name, which combines both its new patron St Pierre and its former, Arteh, another local god.

At Escugnau, in the Val d’Aran, one can find an inscription which is dedicated to ‘Iluberrixo’, whose name resembles many other Pyrenean deities (‘Iluro’, ‘Ilumber’ etc.) and some Pyrenean Roman towns (Illiberis which became Elne, Eliberis or Elimberris Auscorum which became Auch, etc (Sacaze, 1885)). Does this point towards a broader Pyrenean divinity whose name adapted to local dialects yet fulfilled the same role, sharing the same etymological root? In this vein, we find more frequently represented deities in inscriptions, such as ‘Baicorrix’ (otherwise known as ‘Baigorisco’, ‘Baigorix’ or ‘Buaioris’, and possibly relating to a ‘Behigorri’, an underground Basque spirit or guardian), ‘Ilun’ (again, possibly deriving from a Basque etymological construct relating to the evening, the moon or darkness), and ‘Abellion’ (a deity related to sun worship and assimilated into the cult of Apollo with no less than 8 recorded inscriptions). With regard to the latter, a carved ‘Cross of Beliou’ exists in the valley of Lesponne, and this stone altar is seen to be the most visible vestige of the cult (de Marliave, 1996). Another figure of note in the Pyrenean pantheon seems to be ‘Ageio’ (or ‘Ageion’/’Egeion’), found in the Baronnies valley in the Hautes-Pyrenees. The inscription on his altar references the mountains, suggesting a strong link between the local peaks and his cult (Sacaze, 1885).

The ‘Mask of Montserie’ (see photo) is an excellent high end example of the material culture associated with these Pyrenean gods. Crafted from a single sheet of bronze, this mask found in the sanctuary of Montserie (Hautes-Pyrenees) portrays a bearded male deity. Dating is controversial, ranging from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, and could represent either a votive offering or a standing representation of the divinity in question. At the same site (protohistoric & Gallo-Roman) were found statues of a wild cockerel, a boar, coins and votive stelae, the latter being dedicated to the god ‘Erge’. Dolmens still stand on the site, and allegedly the situation of the site (high altitude with impeccable views) allowed for the observation of the stars (http://montserie.com).

Some deities will no doubt exist to whom the votive altars must wish them to remain anonymous, being dedicated as many are to ‘montibus’ (the mountains) or ‘fontibus’ (springs). Interestingly it seems that latter appears more frequently than the former, possibly influenced by the imported Roman cult of the nymphs, or possibly simply reflecting that age-old impulse to venerate the source of water, that gifts the ability to live.

The diversity in both the names and characters of these divinities can be explained simply by the topography of the Pyrenees, whose valleys are as numerous as they are beautiful, with each peak holding the potential to be both represented by and hosting a divinity. This is not to mention the myriad of forests, streams and springs which may have held sites of hyper-local worship of similarly themed deities which, through linguistic mutations, resulted in such a diverse range of supernatural and divine beings across the Pyrenees. However, it is possible through etymological studies and topographical analysis to discern some commonalities in order to bring together a truly Pyrenean pantheon. That, however, is a task for the future!

Works and websites referenced:

de Marliave, Olivier & Pertuze, Jean-Claude. 1990. Pantheon Pyreneen. Carbonne: Editions Loubatieres.

de Marliave, Olivier. 1993. Dictionnaire de Mythologies Basque et Pyreneenne. Paris: Editions Entente.

de Marliave, Olivier. 1996. Tresor de la Mythologie Pyreneenne. Toulouse: Editions Sud Ouest.

Sacaze, Julien. 1885. Les Anciens Dieux des Pyrenees: Nomenclature et Distribution. Saint-Gaudens: IMprimerie et Librairie Abadie.

Available to download here: http://tolosana.univ-toulouse.fr/notice/115490175

Tarrats Bou, Francesc. 2010. L’astre Olimp. Els Pirineus a l’Antiguitat: Societat, Economia I Religio. Guia de l’Exposicio (29 de Gener al 16 de Maig de 2010). Tarragon: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarraona.

The official site of the Monterie commune: http://montserie.com

Photograph taken from this address: http://www.tarbes.fr/fichiers_agenda/144358masque_montserie.jpg

Weekly Article #7 – The Mysteries of Sabarthès


(Looking from Montsegur to the Pic de St Bethelemy)


The Sabarthès is a canton in the Haute Ariege within the foothills of the Pyrenees, filled with caves, forests, waterfalls, peaks and lakes, and most importantly it has become a focal point for some of the most jaw-dropping and fascinating legends in France, many of which surround the Cathars and, perhaps most interestingly the Grail itself! The essence of these legends will be presented in this article; however, the future of Perennial Pyrenees will contain far more detailed analyses (including books and, possibly, tours) of these legends and their sites. This short article is merely an appetiser, and introduction to the mysterious and rather wonderful atmosphere of the Sabarthès canton.

The valleys of the Sabarthès are riddled with caves, and a Prehistoric presence here is undeniable, perhaps best exemplified by the ‘Grotte de Bedeilhac’. Extending for over a kilometre, within this cave one can find works of art from the Magdalenian culture (17,000 – 12,000 years ago), including paintings, line drawings, wall engravings, and rare clay engravings. Stalagmites reach up to the ceiling with tremendous height and the main cavern is a staggering work of natural beauty. Both Celtic and Visigothic populations also trod the valleys and mountains of the Sabarthès, and the layers of history in this area are both rich and shrouded in a thick layer of myth.


During the Medieval period ‘heresies’ were abound, and the tolerant attitude found in the lands of Occitania allowed several of these beliefs to flourish and take root. The most infamous and certainly the most controversial was the Cathar heresy, a mixture of Gnosticism, Dualism, Christianity and several other (possibly older) philosophies that created a unique faith the flourished in the shadow of the Pyrenees. The relatively swift rise and subsequent destruction of the Cathars (thanks primarily to the Albigensian Crusade, a mixture of territory/wealth acquisition, power expansion and orthodoxy) has given rise to a vast body of myth surrounding their beliefs, practises and the ‘secrets’ they might have known, not least with reference to the Holy Grail. Yes, it’s going to be ‘one of those’ articles!


The physical traces of the Cathars can be found in the Sabarthès. Many a castle in the wider region was held by a lord who sympathised with the Cathars, and in the Sabarthès for example we find the beautiful ruins of the castle of Lordat. A stones throw away lies the beautiful walled Medieval town of Foix, jewel of the Ariege, whose lineage boasts the infamous Esclarmonde de Foix (1151 – 1215), daughter of the Count de Foix, recipient of the Cathar sacrament and a prominent figure in both real Cathar matters and the posthumous Cathar mythos. Just to the North lies the highly symbolic and forlorn ruin of Montsegur, whose legend has attracted countless treasure hunters, tourists, curious souls and Grail seekers (including the elusive ‘Polaires’ in the 1930’s). Further to the North, beyond the boundaries of the Sabarthès one finds the infamous walled citadel of Carcassonne, the beating heart of the Cathar cause. Within the embrace of the Sabarthès lie the fortified caves of Bouan, which acted as the last bastion of the Cathars after the fall of that doomed castle, perched high on its rock. Several fled through hidden paths across the Pyrenees to escape the fate that awaited heretics, finding sanctuary in Catalonia. Perhaps some even used the valleys of Andorra as an easy crossing?

To return to the Sabarthès and the legends therein, the publicising of the myths surrounding Cathar secrets and mysteries in the canton was first driven by the research of historian Adolph Garrigou (1802 – 1897). Nicknamed ‘the patriarch of the Sabarthès’ by locals, he lived in Tarascon in the Ariege, and one of his particular bugbears was the tyranny and oppression of the Roman clergy shown towards the religious and patriotic ‘martyrs’ of the Cathars. Later in the 19th century another historian was born, Antonin Gadal (1877 – 1962), who lived next door to Adolph, and he learnt much from the ‘patriarch’. Garrigou would often ask Gadal to read him stories from his vast library, and so Gadal become invested with a great love of the Cathars and their mysteries – so much so in fact, that he dedicated his life to studying and protecting what he felt were both the physical and spiritual traces they left in his local landscape, the Sabarthès. He spent the vast majority of his life exploring the caves, forests and hills in search of Cathar influence, and claimed to have discovered a variety of locations he believed were linked to the processes of initiation for Cathar ‘perfecti’ (priests). In particular he was drawn to the caves of the Sabarthès (sixty of which he owned), including those of Ussat, Ornolac and Bouan, the Lombrives, Fontanet, Ramploques, and the ‘cave of the Hermit’ (identification unknown). In 1931, he met the extraordinary character Otto Rahn, a German archaeologist who was hugely drawn to both the Parzival epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Cathar Grail mysteries. It was he who made famous the now-popular link between Montsegur and the ‘Montsalvatge’ or ‘Grail Castle’ found in Parzifal. Regardless of any political allegiances Rahn may or may not have had, he is an important figure in this area due to his research and propagation of the connection between the Grail, the Cathars and the Sabarthès canton in particular.


In particular, Rahn (with the initial help of Gadal) toured the Fontanet cave, a well-known prehistoric grotto which both gentlemen believed to contain an ‘altar stone’ used by the Cathars, the Bethlehem cave which they believed contained a pentagram stone (see photo), and the Lombrives cave, which Rahn claimed contained a variety of Cathar and Templar graffiti (links found at the end of this article). In addition, in his book ‘Lucifer’s Court’ Rahn writes of local legends in which a forest near Montsegur contains a great vault, within which lies an enormous treasure guarded by vipers, a lake beneath the nearby peak of St Bartholomew in which the treasure of Montsegur was thrown. This book, whatever the veracity of the information within, is beautifully written, and captures the dreamlike quality found in the landscapes of the region. Aside from Rahn, a great many local aristocratic and international figures became fascinated by the region and the work of Gadal, and a circle of study emerged within the Ariege, focussing on the Sabarthès investigating Cathar mysteries, both ‘uncovering’ and perpetuating further the Cathar-Grail legends and folklore that is so heavily imbued in the region today, to say nothing of nearby Rennes-le-Chateau and its alleged Magdalene connection!

Rahn Bethlehem grotto

(Otto Rahn in the ‘Pentagram Stone’)

It is important to recognise the weight of myth, and the weight of this Cathar connection and the hint of the Grail drives vast quantities of tourism within the Ariege and the Aude each year. Aside from this purely economic aspect, these legends and alleged connections do tend to get under one’s skin, no matter how hard-boiled and pragmatic one might be, when presented with the caves, castles and forests of the Sabarthès. When one is there, it becomes obvious how this landscape, so littered with remnants of the past both physically and culturally, could endow those who come here with a sense of the ‘other’, and a willingness to accept, if only for a moment, the prospect of mysterious truths hidden within the valleys and lakes of this numinous canton.


Resource (including photographs) for Rahn’s work:


Introduction to the work of Antonin Gadal:



An excellent article for the fortified caves and castles of the Sabarthès (in French):



Rahn photograph taken from: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/aa/b6/c5/aab6c5b64a5b27559801ee57a4de9981.jpg







Weekly Article #4 – A report of the results from prospecting for rock carvings above Andorra la Vella.

Together with Regirarocs the project spent a happy morning this week scrambling up scree slopes on the south-facing mountainside above Andorra la Vella. The majority of the scree is made up of schist, with a distinct brownish orange colouring, and often shears off with large flat surfaces, ideal for carving. Locating these carvings in an extensive scree slope can be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack, thankfully Regirarocs’ local knowledge came to the fore and we managed to located several carvings, some of which had missed on previous expeditions. The current estimates are that these carvings are by and large broadly Medieval in date, however their location (nestling in break in the slope) are puzzling, as they are difficult to access and the environment does not seem to lend itself to casual exploration. In the photographs one can find the carvings themselves, and a (highly amateur!) schematic drawing that aims at clarifying some of the images (not to scale – the eagle-eyed might spot the nascent Perennial Pyrenees logo sketched in the top left).


(Figure 1)

Some carvings are easier to interpret than others. For example, the crescent moon shapes with two lines emerging to finish with a box (Fig. 1) are highly reminiscent of a crossbow style weapon, and are in fact very similar to carvings of crossbows found in the Côa Valley National Park in Portugal (viewable in the fourth thumbnail here: http://arte-coa.pt/index.php?Language=en&Page=Gravuras&SubPage=ArteRupestre&Menu2=Motivos&Sitio=226).


(Figure 2)

The figure wearing some form of robe/clothing (Fig. 2) clutching a long object (a club or staff?) can be easily made out, what is intriguing is the effort made to display his clothes – is it hair or some manner of hat perched atop his head? I would make a tentative suggestion that this might be a representation of an ecclesiastical figure (clerical robes, potentially some manner of staff in hand); the flaring of the clothing and the attempted representation of pattern is highly suggestive of vestments, with the ‘hat’ being a possible attempt at carving a mitre.


(Figure 3)

However, others trickier. The carving which appears to resemble a bird (Fig. 3) might also represent a solar symbol, with the wings, breast and tail all forming three arms of the symbol revolving anti-clockwise. More convincing though is the idea that it is a form of Solomon’s knot, with the wing, tail and breast forming three of the knot interlaces. It may be that the fourth interlace was not quite so successful, and so it was turned into a bird at the last minute!


(Figure 4)

The geometric pattern (Fig. 4) could possibly have functioned as a gaming board, yet the location of the carving on a rock halfway down a scree slope is puzzling, even if one takes into account it slipping down the slope as the years/centuries passed by. Or is it simply an attempt at geometric art? Similar carvings have been found at La Borda del Cadena and Les Comes (see Casamajor i Esteban, 2009, 95 – 96)


(Figure 5)

The carving featuring what might be a human (Fig. 5) or anthropomorphic figure (square head, triangular shoulders/breast, horizontal arms) has an odd patterned addition in what may be its right hand. Other carvings at the Roc de Bruixes near Canillo (Andorra) and at the cave of Casa Vella (Montanissell, Catalunya) show similar patterns which scholars have interpreted as crosses or possibly grills irons (see Casamajor I Esteban, 2009, 103, and Mas, 1977, 21).


(Figure 6)

Most baffling is the curious flowing cursive pattern (Fig. 6), difficult to make out in the photograph due to the light, however as far as possible it has been clarified in the drawing. To call this a script would be optimistic to say the least, however it is without doubt man made and not the result of natural weathering/tumbling rocks. Regirarocs has found similar examples in other locations both in Andorra and the Pyrenees, which only deepens the mystery of what the intention behind such a carving might be. Campmajo & Crabol (2009) present similar styles of inscriptions in their paper on engravings in Cerdanya, and suggest that these may be attempts at religious Christian inscriptions in Catalan. Whilst this might appear a broad leap of faith at the outset, the similarities between those presented in their paper and those found in this expedition are indeed striking (pdf available upon request).

ROck art scan

(Figure 7 – Attempt to represent carvings, amateur indeed!)

Overall these represent a quite fascinating collection of engravings which seem to encompass a diverse range of motifs and intentions and share iconographic similarities with other nearby sites both in Andorra and the Catalan Pyrenees, as well as most surprisingly in Portugal. The diversity of iconography may be surprising, but what is astonishing is the location – a scree slope which is difficult to access, whose rocks may slide but which rest near the base in a break of the slope. That is to say, these rocks may not have moved in a long time, and even had they been carved when they rested at the top of the slope (the carvings are in remarkably good form if so, managing to survive their journey), this would place them in an even higher and more treacherous environment to access than their current location. Thus. the motivation is hard to fathom, are the area does not seem to lie within the purview of any shepherd/goatherd trails, although it is possible that the rocks potentially original location (up the mountain) may have lain on upper mountain paths, however, the carvings show little evidence of the rough and tumble that would likely have marred the images during a journey down the scree slope over a number of years. So, it is likely that these images were carved more or less in their current location. It is just possible that this area was used by hunters stalking mouflon and chamois (bears and wolves were also hunted in Andorra historically, however this location does not seem ideal in supporting these animals). The motivations remain somewhat of a mystery however. It is possible that the ‘gaming board’ (Fig. 4) might have been a one-use affair (the effort required for such a carving is minimal). If the cursive carving (Fig. 6) is indeed a script similar to those found in Cerdanya, then the effort required may indicate (based on Campmajo & Crabol’s suggestions) a devotional or pleading text, potentially associated with the what I have interpreted as the liturgical figure (Fig. 2) nearby on the same rock (Fig. 3 and Fig. 5 are also found on this rock).

These carvings are but a tithe of those that have been discovered in Andorra, and who knows how many lurk on remote slopes, in gullies, caves and forests around the country, let alone in the broader Pyrenees. What is sure however is that the Perennial Pyrenees project in conjunction with Regirarocs will bring more of these to light over the coming years, discussing, presenting and analysing them to dig behind the motives of those that walked these valleys and mountains before us.


Campmajo, P & Crabol, D. 2009. Les gravures rupestres de Cerdagne (Pyrenees Catalanes). Quelques elements pour la chronologies et une approche smbolique. Archeo, Vol. 66, no. 24, 61 – 78.

Casamajor i Esteban, J. 2009. ‘Noves aportacions als gravats rupestres d’Andorra I de l’Alt Urgell’ in Els correus a Andorra, una historia anacabada, 94 – 106.

Available here: http://publicacions.iec.cat/repository/pdf/00000111/00000091.pdf

Mas, D. 1977. ‘El Roc de les Bruixes: Noves aportacions als gravats rupestres andorrans’ in

Quaderns d’ Estudis Andorrans. No. 2, 5-31