PhD Student Martin Doppelt’s archaeological research in the South of France

Thanks to support from the French Embassy to the United States in the form of a Chateaubriand Fellowship (2017), and with sponsorship from the University Paul Valéry (Montpellier III), Martin Doppelt is continuing a long-standing research collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology and the CNRS unité mixte de recherche 5140: Archéologie des Sociétés Méditerranéennes.

Martin is presently writing a dissertation on changes to political economy and the development of power hierarchies amongst indigenous societies of southern France during the pre-Roman Iron Age (ca. 650 - 125 BCE), in a context of complex entanglement with various Mediterranean state societies. Particularly from the end of the 5th until at least the mid-3rd century BCE, one observes what seems like a reorganization of intra- and inter-regional dynamics across southern France (the Midi), appearing to create (or deepen) disparities and rifts between coastal lowlands and mountainous hinterlands, ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ spaces, ‘colonizing’ and ‘indigenous’ populations.

Interestingly, starting around the end of the 4th century BCE and continuing through the 3rd, the archaeological record begins to evince a distinctly new corporeally-directed social practice: that of removing, manipulating, and displaying human cranial remains (têtes coupées) in public and private contexts. It is then during the 2nd century BCE that certain indigenous sites truly begin to evince what have been interpreted as the first appearances of class distinction, social hierarchization, political centralization, and the institutionalization of power hierarchies. By the late 2nd century (ca. 125 BCE, dawn of Roman conquest in the Provence), it seems fairly clear that the Midi comprised at least six larger, centralized political confederations composed of various ethnic groups. Thus, Martin’s project seeks to answer the question: in a context that sees increased spatial ruptures and growing social disparities linked to shifts in political economy, does the human body become a site for the active representation and creation of increasing intergroup and interpersonal distinction? To help address this question, Martin uses isotope biogeochemistry to analyze têtes coupées from several sites around the Midi, but especially the fortified, indigenous coastal site of Le Cailar in the department of the Gard.

Têtes coupées and the social processes of their creation have been a focus of deep interest to archaeologists, historians, and classicists for well over a century. The fierce Gallic warrior taking heads after battle and the bearded Druid performing ritual sacrifices in a sacred grove: these were images central to French romantic and nationalist movements, they formed a central focus of the earliest state-sponsored archaeological research in France, and they perdure in popular media. Yet, while often attested by Classical literary, iconographic, and indirect archaeological evidence, the practice of collecting and curating têtes coupées had never before been broached in a direct and complete fashion until excavations began at Le Cailar (Gard) in 2003. More than a decade of subsequent excavations at the site have revealed an extensive assemblage accumulated over the course of the 3rd century BCE in the midst of an open space adjoining the site’s rampart. Made up of thousands of fragments (fauna, ceramics, monies, metallic objects), the assemblage is distinguished by the inclusion of intentionally deformed armaments and, most notably, human remains comprising exclusively cranial and vertebral elements from approximately 50 individuals.

Thus the significance of the assemblage at Le Cailar: In addition to revealing the most numerically important collection of human cranial remains from Iron Age France to date, the excavations at Le Cailar have been the first opportunity in southern France to precisely record the material and osteological remnants of this ritual practice in situ. As part of the Le Cailar team, Martin is employing isotope biogeochemistry to examine the human cephalic remains and a variety of associated fauna (these latter used to establish dietary and environmental baselines). Once analyses have been completed for the site of Le Cailar, additional sites with smaller assemblages of human cranial remains will be gradually added, to provide an empirically-driven, regional view of this ancient practice. As a complement to osteologic and genetic analyses, and when examined in tandem with other lines of material evidence such as ceramic distributions, isotopic data may be able to provide insights into such things as intra-group differences in regards to diet, region of origin, patterns of lifetime mobility, and perhaps even post-mortem relocation. Such data may thus inform our understanding of movement or blockages within and between different regions of southern France during the Late Iron Age, and help us better understand what role changing subjectivities played in the development of power relationships.