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 of Melena, 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 of Septimania. 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.
Interactive document - The rocky spur of the La Malène castellum

The rocky spur of the La Malène castellum

The rocky spur of the La Malène castellum, a foothill of the Causse de Sauveterre in the Gorges du Tarn.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - La Malène (Lozère)

La Malène (Lozère)

Uncovering the remains of this elevated site during the summer 2009 campaign.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS & Estelle Perségol
Interactive document - Access to the residential room

Access to the residential room

Access to the residential room during removal of the collapse layer, including these column fragments from the upper level.
© Nicolas Clément
Interactive document - Triens from the Banassac workshop, attributable to Sigebert III (second third of the 7th century CE), gold

Triens from the Banassac workshop, attributable to Sigebert III (second third of the 7th century CE), gold

Saint Hilary of Gévaudan took refuge in the castellum when the descendents of Clovis extended the Kingdom of the Franks in the direction of the Mediterranean civitates of Septimania. When Gévaudan was definitively made part of the Frankish world, the site became a border community. The location of the fortress close to Banassac – the site of coin-minting workshops as of the reign of Caribert II – may have played a role in the local organisation of the Merovingian royal authority.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - Remains of a colonnade?

Remains of a colonnade?

Column elements discovered in a thick layer of construction materials. The colonnade is an architectural expression that dates back to Antiquity.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - The use of lime

The use of lime

Lime was used for masonry work and also for wall plaster.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - The cistern

The cistern

Careful planning was required to install this capacious cistern and to lay the floor in opus signinum, which rests on a thick apron.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - The baths

The baths

The need for bathing facilities testified to the endurance of the lifestyle of the upper classes in Antiquity.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS
Interactive document - Removing the major architectural elements

Removing the major architectural elements

Significant resources were used to remove the most noteworthy architectural elements.
© L. Schneider, LAMM-CNRS