La Malènethe villa's last hurrah(La Malène, Lozère)
A residential fortress in the Gorges du Tarn
In the late 5th or early 6th century, a residential structure was built on a peak that towered over the Gorges du Tarn. It was occupied at least through the late 7th century. Despite the inhospitable topography, large-scale structures were put up across a surface area of nearly one hectare. At the very top, a square tower was erected, along with a curtain wall blocking the only accessible side. Several adjoining buildings formed an ensemble – nearly 50 metres long and 8 metres deep – along the spine of the hill. One of these rooms retained an elevation of nearly 3 metres, and the remains of a colonnade on an upper floor emphasised both the ostentatious and residential nature of this part. Among the lower buildings, which have only been partly excavated, a rectangular brickwork cistern held up to 190 cubic metres of water. It seems likely that this reserve served, via gravity, a bathing establishment even further down the hill. Nearby, a large 157 sq. metre building may have served as a horreum
Laurent Schneider (CNRS, Laboratoire d’Archéologie Médiévale Méditerranéenne, Aix-en-Provence) suggests that the site may be that of the castellum
, where Saint Hilaire of Gévaudan found refuge when the descencents of Clovis extended the Kingdom of the Franks in the direction of the Mediterranean civitates
Roman buildings and a Roman way of life
Although the choice of a mountain-top site seems at odds with our image of a Roman villa, its construction and subsequent modifications are – on the contrary – reminiscent of the pars urbana of a wealthy estate. Lime was frequently used for the masonry work and the wall plaster. Light and air are provided to an upper-level gallery by a colonnade, of which several shafts, bases and capitals have been found. Hydraulic cement, a lime-based mortar admixed with dust and fragments of tile, was used for the watertight coating on the cistern and in the baths. The area for the baths was square in layout and measured about 60 sq. metres. Heating for part or all of the structure was provided by a praefurnium
located near the slope. On one side was a semicircular apse that may have held a bathing area or a labrum
, and on the other a large square bathtub.
These various furnishings lead us to identify this as a "palace", whose level of comfort was the equivalent of any number of villas built down on the plains – and this in a structure that was built under the Merovingian dynasty. Mediterranean wine was still consumed, either at banquets or during Christian rituals. Five African amphorae and one from Gaza show that the great tradition of ancient trading continued into the 7th century CE.