The Battle of Alesia Continues

Tip o’ the pileus to Ian Spoor for sending this one in from the BBC … I wasn’t aware of this controversy:

Every French schoolchild has learned about Alesia.

It was the battle in which Julius Caesar beat the Gauls under Vercingetorix, thus bringing France into the Roman world.

Had it gone the other way, the French might have ended up German.

In the Asterix comic book The Chieftain’s Shield, the opening scene shows Vercingetorix throwing his weapons not before, but on Caesar’s feet.

Right now, there is an added reason to contemplate this key moment in early European history.

An impressive new museum-cum-activity centre has just opened on the official site of the battle, in northern Burgundy.

The Alesia MuseoParc, beneath the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, consists of a circular museum building containing artefacts and displays, and then – outside – a full-scale reconstruction of part of the Roman siege lines.

Visitors come away with a thorough grounding in Gaulish fighting techniques, or in Caesar’s strategic genius.

What they hear little of is a controversy that questions the museum’s very raison d’etre.

Understandable perhaps, because after 10 years of planning, and 75m euros (£60m) of investment, who wants to be told that the battle never took place here at all?

Unifying spirit

The more recent battle of Alesia – about its whereabouts, that is – goes back 150 years, to the time of France’s Emperor Napoleon III.

After the surrender of Vercingetorix in 52BC, the Gaulish town was said to have been obliterated and lost for good. In The Chieftain’s Shield, there is even a running gag about no-one knowing where Alesia is.

But in 1864, Napoleon issued an imperial decree stating that Alesia had now been officially identified as Alise-Sainte-Reine.

The emperor, the nephew of the original Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, saw Vercingetorix as an embodiment of France’s national identity.

Though he was the loser at Alesia, Vercingetorix had by then forged the first ever pan-Gaulish alliance of tribes.

Nearly two millennia later, Napoleon III, whose legitimacy was, to say the least, precarious, wanted to harness this unifying spirit.

So when archaeological evidence began to emerge that possibly linked Alise-Sainte-Reine to some kind of Roman-Celtic confrontation, Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy became the officially designated site, and a monumental statue of Vercingetorix was erected on the hilltop where the citadel of Alesia was presumed to have stood.

Tellingly, behind his drooping moustaches, the chieftain bears the features of a young Napoleon III.

However from the start, there were doubts about the decision, which some said had been made in haste and with clear political motives.

It was not that there was no evidence for Napoleon’s claim. The very place-name – Alise – suggested a link.

And excavations carried out in the 1860s brought to light a wealth of remains – coins, weapons, trench-lines, armour – that seemed to lend further proof.

But there were suspicions that it was all too, well – convenient.

Caesar’s account

And then exactly 50 years ago, the story took the dramatic twist whose repercussions are still with us today.

An archaeologist called Andre Berthier was profoundly uneasy about the identification Alise-Sainte-Reine as Alesia.

His method was to go back to the only sure evidence – contemporary histories – and construct an “identikit” for a location. Then he would pore over detailed military maps to find places that might correspond.

Applying this technique to the Alesia conundrum, he absorbed himself in Caesar’s own De Bello Gallico, the general’s personal account – known to generations of Latin students – of the conquest of Gaul.

It provides a clear description of Alesia. It is on a “very high” hill, impregnable except by siege. The feet of the hill are washed by two rivers, and there is a plain in front extending for three Roman miles.

These and other details convinced Berthier that Alesia could not be at Alise-Sainte-Reine. The portrait simply did not fit.

The hill, he thought, was not sufficiently high to oblige Caesar to lay siege. The plain was too wide, and as for the two rivers – “flumina” in Latin – they were pathetic little streams.

In 1962, after eliminating 200 alternative sites one by one, he came to a place called Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura, about 35 miles (56km) from Geneva.

Eureka.

It was exactly as Caesar had described.
‘Lethargy, careerism and money’

Fifty years later, Berthier’s work is being continued by his disciple, Sorbonne classics professor Danielle Porte, who is fired by an overpowering sense of injustice.

“The archaeological establishment has never paid the slightest heed to our doubts. They are too wrapped up in their own reputations, and now there are the economic interests at stake as well, with the museum.

“No-one dares question the orthodox thesis. Lethargy, careerism and money are all taking precedence over historical truth, and that is something I cannot put up with,” she says.

Having identified the place from Caesar’s texts, Berthier’s next task was to explore the area for physical evidence.

Another ancient writer – the Greek Diodorus of Sicily – wrote that Alesia was an extremely important religious centre for all the Celtic peoples of Europe.

So the true Alesia should contain signs of that past. Excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine had mainly revealed traces from the later Gallo-Roman period, in itself suspicious because the town is supposed to have been wiped out.

Berthier’s researches at Chaux excited him beyond his wildest expectations.

Buried in woods, he found the remains of an ancient rampart wall. Ms Porte says it is a classic “Cyclopean” bronze-age fortification, originally 10m (33ft) high.

They also found a rare anthropomorphic menhir – a stone “goddess” that would have guarded an entrance – as well as other Celtic and pre-Celtic artefacts.

In addition, a short distance away, the association claims to have found signs of a Roman siege camp, seemingly further confirmation.

In short, they not only believe the famous battle took place at Chaux, they also think Alesia itself was a substantial Gaulish centre.

This means that, lying beneath the woods, there is a wealth of ancient remains waiting to be excavated.

“We believe this is the most important unexcavated archaeological site in Europe,” says historian and broadcaster Franck Ferrand.

“And yet the French state refuses to authorise excavations here. Why? Because it might jeopardise the official theory.

“It is the only case in history of an excavation being banned for cultural reasons.”

Skuldiggery?

The “Jurassics”, as the dissidents are known, are convinced that the original excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine were deliberately falsified.

Ferrand quotes a worker who allegedly told a reporter at the time that the finds were so amazing, “it was if they had been put there!”

Some items are said to have been previously seen up for sale at auction, and there are questions over a chest of treasure that was supposedly found in the Roman lines.

According to the Jurassics, this contained quantities of coins from different Gaulish tribes in exact proportion to their reported presence at the battle. How perfect, they say. And how unlikely.

But these charges of what might be called skuldiggery are hotly contested by defenders of the official line.

Laurent de Froberville, director of the Alesia museum, will not quite say the Jurassics are cranks, but he does insist the vast body of scientific opinion supports the Alise-Sainte-Reine claim.

“So much evidence has been found in the ground here,” he says.

“Just one example: There were three types of horses in the battle, from the Roman, Gaulish and Germanic cavalries. And we have found bones here from all three breeds.

“The Jurassic people rely far too heavily on one element: Caesar’s texts. But we cannot be sure how accurate these writings are.

“Most experts rely on an accumulation of a different evidence. There comes a point – like in an detective enquiry – when everything points in one direction, and you have to say: It’s here.”

Buried truth

The arguments will no doubt run and run. Until Chaux is excavated, the dissidents will always be able to say the truth is buried in the earth.

For those tempted to ask “Why should we care?”, Ms Porte has several answers.

First, on the location of Alesia hinges a great deal of the reputation of chief Vercingetorix.

If Alesia is indeed at the Burgundy site, then one is entitled to question the chieftain’s leadership skills: The place is not particularly defensible.

However, if Alesia is in the Jura, Vercingetorix was blocking Caesar’s path from a position of almost impregnable strength, and loses only because of the last-minute defection of one of the tribes.

Second, much dating of Celtic and Roman weaponry and coins hinges on the identification of Alesia with Alise-Sainte-Reine.

If a certain type of sword has been found there, it means that sword existed in 52BC, so similar swords found elsewhere must be from the same period.

All that archaeological science would have to be re-written, if it turns out that the remains come from a different period.

Ms Porte’s third reason is that the site at Chaux-des-Crotenay needs to be preserved.

“I remember when I first came here with Andre Berthier, he said to me: ‘This is the biggest Celtic site in Europe, and we are the only two to know it.’

“But one day the truth will out.”

If you want to follow up on this, there really isn’t much on the web.  A l e s i a The Jurassic hypothesis is mostly in French and presents ‘the argument’ and has some publications to order. No indication of any archaeological evidence at this particular website, though. To judge by a forum discussion (in French), the apparent  ‘lack’ of archaeological evidence for the claim is the main turning point — does anyone know if any of the finds associated with Chaux-des-Crotenay have been published in a peer-reviewed journal? I remain unsure about this one and — given past patterns — can only wonder if the BBC has a documentary in the works …

8 thoughts on “The Battle of Alesia Continues

  1. I don’t think there’s any real controversy here; Alise-Sainte-Reine has been extensively investigated over many decades and the evidence is fairly clear. Caesar’s descriptions are mostly of the Roman siege-works at Alesia (he doesn’t have much to say about the inside of the Gallic settlement) and those correspond very well to survey and excavation evidence.

    Also, the “high hills” remark is misleading in a way – as Riggsby (2006:40-42) points out in “Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words”, the word ‘montes’ (mountains or high hills, as opposed to the word ‘collis’ which is simply a hill) is always used to define a tactical space rather than indicating actual elevation. Similarly, descriptions of rivers as boundaries seem to have been very much coloured by tactical/political motives. Certainly a detailed reading of Caesar’s topographical descriptions can be very rewarding but the context of his words are as important as their literal translation.

    Finally, I don’t think there’s a single named oppidum in France that doesn’t have someone arguing that the site isn’t really where archaeologists say it is. Seems to be a bit of a national sport!

  2. The reason almost everything published on the Alise/Alaise question is in French is that few people in the international scientific community have ever doubted the identification of Alise-Sainte-Reine with Alesia.
    The controversy is not really about history at all, but mainly about politics and parochial pride. The excavation of Alesia in the 1860s took place under the patronage of the authoritarian emperor Napoleon III, who published a three-volume book on Julius Caesar in 1865.
    In a situation where direct attacks on the régime were impossible due to press censorship, sowing doubts about the emperor’s scientific achievements were a safe way to criticize it. Rather like those Americans who try to discredit the U.S. government by claiming that it never put a man on the moon.
    After the fall of Napoleon III there was not much interest in the Alesia question, which most archaeologists and historians considered closed.
    By the way, it’s not correct that André Berthier was the person who reopened the case for Alaise. That honour goes to the botanist Georges Colomb, who wrote several books and articles in the interwar years claiming that Alaise was identical to Caesar’s Alesia.

    1. International scientific community may not believe so easily that the controversy is just “about politics and parochial pride”: this was part of it in late XIX century but has no sense nowadays. Behind this smoke screen, there are true scientific questions that french official location doesn’t resolve. Worst: many artifacts are only supposed to be from -52 just because they were found in Alise, most of them in XIXth century, with not any stratigraphic indication.
      So, because they just trust french archaeologist opinion, without having any critical sight on there hypothesis, international scientific community may put a dating on sites they excavate founded on comparison with Alise’s artefacts whose dating is a pure opinion issued without scientific evidence in the nineteenth and never verified since.

  3. I follow this contoversy since a few years. I’m convinced now that Chaux des Crotenay and surrounding villages, in Jura, is the site of the final battle of the Gauls war.

    For any person interested in the subject, the best is to contact archeo-jura-sites association and order the small book of Jacques Berger (in french) : Alesia – Chaux des Crotenay, Pourquoi ? It’s a database of all the findings on the site. You can also contact the other association (Danielle Porte – Franck Ferrand – François Chambon) and ask them their recent findings with lidar or magnetometry investigations. And if you take a few days to visit the site (it’s large), while reading “de bello gallico” you will be convinced.

    http://archeojurasites.org/
    http://www.alesiaalisesequanes.com/
    http://alesia.jura.free.fr

    Now the question is : to what siege pertain the remains found at Alise Sainte Reine, in Burgundy ? Everything there seems to prove that the siege can be dated of ~52 bc. So the real question is : why are there two sites, at 180 km distance, and only one described by Caesar in De Bello Gallico ? I have my idea on the question, to be published soon. Best regards.

  4. I read a lot of archaeological reports…and I ‘m really
    not convinced Alise Sainte Reine is Alésia. The main argument for
    this location is that no other site provided so many artifacts. But
    in Alise, archaeological research has been funded for 150 years.
    Not a penny for Chaux des Crotenay. Is it honest to compare what
    was found in a millions Euro funded site with another one where not
    a penny was given to by a spade? How can you publish when you have
    money neither to excavate nor to analyse?When I see that you, in
    UK, allocated a million £ to study alternative locations for
    Bosworth Battlefield, whenever you had yet an official site since
    1973…and finally found the real one ! I think french
    archaeologists may have many things to learn from you !

  5. This summer, I went on Chaux des Crotenay site with a group of bikers. We were stopped at a particular location, which is the place of the first battle under the oppidum described by Caesar. Two people, ~65 yrs old, came walking on the road and we began discussing : they lived close to this place. In less than 5 mn, they explained us all the remains that local people can find inside or even above the ground : stone rounds (for catapults), oak pillars, big iron pieces. We went to one place to where they directed us. Exactly the site of the last battle on the “north camp” beetween Labienus and Cassivellaunos. It’s incredible : you are there, you see the remains of the roman towers, you know that the owner of the field found remains of the fence in the ground, and so on. You are just Inside the battle !

    We circled the battlefield (the vast oppidum) with our bikes. Everywhere you see that the landscape fits perfectly Caesar’s description. For example, in two places, at the limit of what were roman camps, you find ramps which allow cavalry to exit the camp in rush, approximately by ranks of four horses. Just try to do it in Alise Ste Reine, and you will say “bullshit”.

    But it’s true, there has been a siege in Alise Sainte Reine, probably in 52 bc. The question is : if so, why didn’t Caesar describe this siege ? The answer to this question is in my publication : soon to come (probably april 2013) : I will let you know here, guys.

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