The overlooked twin: Opoul
Part 3: The funerary enigma of Salveterra
The kingdom of the dead and the land of the Saviour
plateau of Opoul is an impressive sight – and site. So much, that
e.g. it was chosen for a time-travel experiment. Evidence of human occupation
dates back to our earliest origins and it is within the general perimeter
of the area inhabited by “Tautavel Man”, a human ancestor that
buried its dead here… no less than 400,000 years ago. Noting that
the Chronodrome experience calls on our ancestors of 50,000 years in the
future, it reveals the insignificance of any human lifespan – or even
that of a religion, like Christianity.
And half a million years is nothing in the even larger geological time span, which has created this plateau. But Mankind has left its imprint on this plateau, and there are three distinct areas where his presence is in evidence.
First is the area occupied by the remains of the castle. It is the side of the plateau that has the best vistas, and guards over the plains below, through which, since Roman times, a major artery of the Empire ran. The remains which we see are therefore no doubt but the last remnants in a long line of military installations. And though its size might seem imposing, it only ever had a garrison of twenty-odd people lodged here.
Secondly, there is the small hamlet of the Visigothic era, in front of the “Roc Roudoune” (Rodon), which was the subject of an archaeological excavation. Though it was an official excavation, it was done very discreetly, and despite the absence of an official report, today, the dig has resulted in visitors being able to visualise the size of this hamlet: four or five homes, three of which have been excavated, with an estimate that no more than thirty people lived in this hamlet at the time.
Thirdly, there are the remains of the 16th and 17th century, towards the north of the plateau, near the large cisterns, the number of inhabitants of which was no doubt larger than of the two previous sites.
of this is non-controversial and straightforward. The next question, however,
leads one into perhaps contentious territory: people living here, died.
Where are the dead? Their dead?
First of all, let us note that this was a military outpost, and with the military, come dead people – alas. Fortunately, few wars were fought in the shadow of Salveterra. We note that there is a “rumour” in the area that states that at some point, there was a skirmish and that the dead were buried in a small valley, next to what is now the road to Perillos. During relatively recent agricultural work, the bones were unearthed, but almost immediately reburied, this apparently because of superstitions. We underline the story to note how, in case of need, the dead are buried as quickly and as locally as possible; here, they were buried almost on the very site where they died – and there is nothing unusual about that. Only in ideal circumstances is it the case that the dead can be buried in consecrated grounds. And in the case of work, if the dead are from the opposite camp, their burial can be – though not necessarily is – purely for hygienic purposes.
Apart from a military presence, for hundreds if not thousands of years, the plateau knew a civilian population. Whereas soldiers might be buried elsewhere, those who lived here, had to bury their dead locally. So: where are the dead? Where are the cemeteries?
should be made clear that on the plateau, not a single area of it suggests
or shows where the dead would or could have been buried. Indeed, though
we are not looking for the equivalent of a major cemetery where hundreds
or thousands were buried, we are looking for a site where twenty-thirty-perhaps
fifty people would be buried. And as everyone knows: a cemetery leaves traces,
either by tombstones, or in the absence of that, scattered bones, or in
the absence of that, other indicators.
We note that Christianity often came with a new methodology of burying the dead, and hence that especially in Christian times, we would be able to find clear evidence of this site. In prehistoric times, the bones were often collated and placed in certain crevices or were subjected to other procedures. We note that the last inhabitants of the plateau left the area in the middle of the 17th century – quite if not very recently. And whereas it is known that some royals or nobles took the dead with them to their new homes, it is clear that a similar scenario should not at all be considered likely for the dead of Salveterra. Also, with no more people living at Salveterra from ca. 1650, it means that the cemetery was neglected, and though this might mean it fell into obscurity, let us also note that there was nowhere any new building work done to obscure the cemetery. Like Perillos three centuries later, Salveterra was abandoned, but unlike Perillos, where the cemetery of Salveterra is, remains an enigma.
us also note that the military dead were not necessarily placed with the
civilian dead. Even today, there is often a distinction between the two.
Also, it is not at all certain that each had a “section” of
the cemetery; the military might have had a cemetery all of their own. Let
us note the castle had an internal cistern, so we need to underline that
it is unlikely that the dead were buried too close to it, as it might result
in serious health issues. Let us also note that in those days, garrisons
often didn’t just die in battle, but also from other illnesses. The
garrison of Salses was often off-limits because of illnesses (related to
mosquitoes) and hence, the quarantined had to dispose – bury –
their dead somewhere. (In case someone would argue they might have burnt
their dead: though hygienic, Catholicism forbade such practices and an “open
fire” was hardly capable of burning the dead so that not even the
bones would remain.)
In short, within the perimeter of a castle, there was normally a site where the dead would be buried – or which was at the least designated as such. In the case of Salveterra, the perimeter of the castle is well-researched, and nowhere is there any indication of such a cemetery. The likely suggestion – though unproven – is therefore that somewhere within the castle, there might be an entrance to a cavity, man-made or natural, which could serve as a cemetery. We note that there is sign of such a gallery, namely near the so-called “magic square”, about which we spoke about earlier.
“Santa Magdeleina de Salveterra” and the descent into the tomb
can be almost certain that for Antiquity and medieval times there are no
longer any existing archives – but that is different for the timeframe
of the last inhabitants. Indeed, the village had a church and a priest or
chaplain who would have kept a register, either in the church itself, or
in another, neighbouring town. This would include the records of baptisms,
marriages, deaths, etc. One might incorrectly assume that the register was
destroyed when the village was abandoned, as such documents were very important
for those who migrated. As such, papers moved with them, and were either
handed over to the bishopric, or the priest of Opoul, Perillos, or perhaps
But there is no need to speculate: we know that it was father J. Codes, priest of Perillos, who closed the register, and made references to an appendix that was concerned with the church of “Santa Magdaleina de Salveterra”, or “Saint Magdalene of Salveterra”. That appendix itself was completed in 1568 by a priest named Croquel.
In this register, the last eyewitness of life “back then”, we note a demographic equilibrium, until everything falls apart in a catastrophic manner, in the 17th century. We note that at no single point in time, this testimony of the “end of Salveterra” mentions a transfer of human remains. In fact, the last two priests note – in the usual excellently written style that often comes with their profession – that burial followed the mass for the dead, noting that the site where they were buried was close to the church. We even find two references to a note stating there were two descents into the tomb – even though it is not further detailed which tomb it is, or where it is located. But the brief mention does underline that for these priests, the “descent into the tomb” was an uneventful feat – routine. Still we should note that a “descent into the tomb” might mean they visited the tombs, or that it was a burial. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was a tomb, it was known, and it was local. Also: it proves that there was a cemetery, even though today, it is no longer easily visible. So: where is it?
Montségur, for a comparison
faced with dilemmas, it is often best to draw comparisons, and for this
one, why not choose Montségur? We know that during the siege of the
pog, there were a number of deaths inside the castle. Until the catapult
was installed by Bishop Durant, one might argue that the dead were brought
to the plateau around the castle. But once the catapult was there, there
was no means through which the local community could dispose of their dead.
And, of course, we might surmise that the catapult itself was intended to
create havoc, and if successful, resulted in more injured and dead.
But the problem is that once the castle surrendered, not a single dead body was found inside the castle. Also, we know that no cemetery was discovered, not even one that was created temporarily, for the duration of the siege. Hence, the only possible solution is that the dead were buried somewhere underground.
It would take several centuries before proof of cavities under the castle was found. It was only in the 20th century before archaeologists found human remains, for example of those who had left the castle in an effort to dismantle the catapult. The soldiers had blocked their assault, and it proved fatal for the Cathars. These archaeological discoveries were done with little appeal to the media, as the geologists were clearly embarrassed, as they had previously proclaimed rather too loudly that there were no cavities or other natural fissure at Montségur. Isn’t it bizarre how some believe they are right, and Nature is wrong?
short, Montségur makes it clear that such sites, located at the top
of hills, had certain cavities, which the people realised were required
if the site could be turned into a human habitat – whether it is Montségur
or Opoul. Of course, in the case of Opoul, it is a known fact – even
for the geologists – that there are several cavities and underground
galleries at Salveterra. The only “problem” we therefore have,
is merely to find out which one was used for the cemetery, for so far, it
is clear that there can be one, there was one… we just do not know
where the one is.
Let us also note that, even though we travelled as far as Montségur, a similar situation existed at Perillos, where the castle had several subterranean galleries, and the same situation exists at… Rennes-le-Château. This is by far not exclusive to “sites of mystery”; in fact, as mentioned just now, it is the rule, rather than the exception.
A “breach in the rock”
fact that officially the site of the tomb is not known, is somewhat surprising,
when we note that the cavities of Opoul and its immediate vicinity are highly
cherished destinations for explorers. Not only that, but we know that most
of them contain a high number of (human) bones, most of which are very old
– and are hence of interest to archaeologists, trying to map human
habitation in this sector, which we know dates back hundreds of thousands
of years. We can therefore forgive archaeologists for not being overly interested
in “just” a relatively recent human tomb, which – we are
almost sure – doesn’t contain anything too exciting. But, still,
one would assume someone had stumbled upon it. If not, then it means that
the chosen cavity was somehow not part of a larger network of underground
tunnels. The area has both such stand-alone and connecting galleries.
So where is it? The first possibility – the first candidate – is an opening near the remains of what was the only church – and not a chapel! – on the plateau, under the patronage of “Santa Magdeleina de Salveterra”, as listed in a document from the 16th century, as well as in another document of Menétrier, from a relief dated 1869. We know that the opening was definitely closed off by 1951, as it is then described as having collapsed, the remains of the collapse visible.
1940, in the memory of the elders, including one teacher from Salses who
makes mention of it in his notes, there were references to a “blocked
pit” near one of the walls of the old church. Nothing more needs to
be added about the evidence that there was such an opening, which ended
up being clogged up and which is a formal piece of evidence that there was
an opening leading to a potential necropolis, perhaps dating back to ancient
times, but which was likely (re)used by the people who lived on the plateau
some centuries ago.
The usage of a natural gallery, to bury the dead, is similar to the set-up of the church of St Michael in Perillos – or Rennes-le-Château. Some might be surprised to find a religious building so near to a subterranean opening, but it is of course the opening that was the cause as to why a religious building was built near or on top. Again, this is the rule, and not unique to the places that are of interest to us.
And though it is clear that the opening would serve the religious life of the community, at the same time, it was often the case that the site was sacred before the advent of Christianity, forcing Christianity to implant a presence there, so that the pagan practices would be no more. In the case of Perillos, it is why so many of the buildings ended up being built north-south, rather than the Christian convention of east-west.
There is also the possibility that the gallery of the church connects with the gallery of the castle. To enter this from the castle, one needs to do so from the location near the magic square, and for anyone who visits there, it will be clear that any exploration there immediately makes it fall outside the limits of the law. But connecting galleries, which can be entered both from the church and the castle, is a very appealing solution to this mystery.
The forgotten church of Salveterra and infrared photography
location of the old church is also on communal property, hence not allowing
any type of survey. Nevertheless, the usage of infrared photography does
allow to “bring out” certain details that the naked eye is unable
to observe. Hence, we’ve been able to locate precisely where the topographical
engineer Menétrier, ca. 1869, said there was a collapse and where,
ca. 1940, it was said that the pit had collapsed.
With the help of these photographs, anyone can rediscover the site. It needs no further clarification that these photographs will only be given to the proper authorities, and no-one else.
A complex make-up
Salveterra – the Land of the Saviour – is therefore part of a complex funerary landscape. It is here that in ancient times, people died, but also – according to archaeologists – that our distant forefathers wanted to be buried. More recently, the humans that lived here, had to be buried here; when it was a border territory, it came with a number of dead following border incidents. So, in short, the “dead in Perillos” have a complex, multi-faceted history, to which we need to add another one, namely the “royal tomb” that Bernard Courtade speaks about in the 17th century. Let us note that at the time, it is James I of Aragon who speaks of this plateau and its importance for the “security of the entire Roussillon”. It is a bold statement to make – and by all means, apparently an exaggerated one. If it was that important, why was the castle not better armed? Larger?
let us also note that with the last inhabitant, certain traces of their
presence might have been “removed” – perhaps not to leave
clues? Perhaps the inhabitants of Salveterra that lived here had another
motif for maintaining a presence here? Was it perhaps a type of “embassy”?
A type of “observation post”, not so much for invading Spaniards
or like, but for “securing” a site? A site that was protected
perhaps not primarily by a royal garrison – which might be too obvious
– but more covertly? If it was – for some reason – the
case that a “listening post” had to be evacuated, than it is
often normal that the entire scene is “wiped clean”. Could that
be the case at Salveterra?
One might ask why listening posts were abandoned and one might suggest – for example – that whatever they were guarding, was no longer there. Alternatively, one might argue that certain points of access were no longer posing a danger, or that so much time had passed without any sign that what they were guarding was in danger, that a decision was taken not to maintain a presence there. Alternatively, the mere annexation of the Roussillon to France might have resulted in that one “intelligence agency” had to vacate their post, and it was left up to the responsibility of the new government – France – to make whatever precautions they felt were necessary to make. Whatever they did, is another story, and one that doesn’t seem to involve the plateau of Opoul itself.