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Bibracte, oppidum of the Aedui (France)

Capital of the Aedui, a Gallic people allied with Rome since the 2nd century BC, Bibracte played a major role in Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. It is the call for help from the Aedui, threatened by the migration of the Helvetii, that will provide the Roman general with the pretext to enter Transalpine Gaul at the head of his legions, defeating the migrants in 58 BC at the battle of Bibracte (De bello gallico, 1, 2-29). Despite this alliance, the Aedui will stand alongside the other Gallic peoples during the great revolt of 52 BC and it was in Bibracte that Vercingetorix achieved Gallic unity against the Romans. After his definitive victory in Alesia, it was again in Bibracte that Caesar took up his winter quarters and completed the writing of the first seven books of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico

Fig. 1: The oppidum of Bibracte on Mount Beuvray (photo R. Goguey).

Since the great investigation into the sites of the Gauls War initiated by Napoleon III in the 1860s, Bibracte has been located on the Mont Beuvray, in the heart of the Morvan massif and Burgundy, on the border of the departments of the Nièvre and Saône-et-Loire. The site was the subject of numerous excavation campaigns between 1867 and 1907, led by the Autun-born scholar Jacques-Gabriel Bulliot and then by his nephew, Joseph Déchelette. Their work revealed the complex organization of this very large urban agglomeration, protected by a powerful rampart. It is also from his research in Bibracte that Déchelette demonstrated the existence, in the 1st century BC, of a Celtic civilization sharing the same material culture, over a geographical area that extends from Great Britain to the plains of Central Europe.
After a long interruption, excavations at the Mont Beuvray resumed in 1984. With the support of the President of the Republic François Mitterand, an ambitious research programme is being set up, conceived as a scientific collaboration on a European scale. Since 1987, the ULB has been associated with the enterprise on the initiative of Professor Pierre-Paul Bonenfant, then Director of the Excavation Service and chair of Protohistory. Today, a dozen universities and scientific institutions are involved in the research on the site, coordinated by the European Archaeological Centre BIBRACTE under the authority of the French Ministry of Culture. With its exceptional infrastructure, including the museum of Celtic civilization, Bibracte has become a unique laboratory in Europe, where researchers and students from France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland work together, sharing their experiences and traditions for the benefit of a common project. Bibracte has been classified as a Historic Monument and Site since 1985 and was awarded the label of Grand Site de France in 2008.

Fig. 2: Pierre-Paul Bonenfant (1936-2010) with President François Mitterand at the Bibracte site in 1993 (photo Bibracte/A. Maillier).

Founded around 120 BC, the town that Caesar refers to as "the largest and richest oppidum of the Aedui" is one of the most exceptional examples of these fortified urban sites that characterize the last phase of the Second Iron Age. The city is protected by a powerful wall of the murus gallicus type, which delimits an area of 135 ha at the top of the Mont Beuvray. A second, older fortification line encloses an even larger area, around 200 ha. Among the many gates in the city, the Porte du Rebout opens onto the main ancient road, about 15 metres wide, which ran through the site from side to side. The oppidum was thus crossed by several ways, structuring urban planning. Beyond the rampart, the district known as the “Côme Chaudron” housed many buildings made of clay and wood, including metal workshops (bronze, iron) testifying to an intense craft activity. Arriving on the flat of the “Pâture du Couvent”, the traveller was welcomed in the axis of the road by a large water basin, built of stone masonry according to a Hellenistic technique. The traditional Gallic houses, sometimes with wooden cellars, are surrounded by stone and mortar buildings with typical Roman terracotta tile roofs. Recent excavations have also uncovered a basilica, possibly belonging to a forum; its dating between -50 and -30 makes this civil building the oldest example known to date north of the Alps. Above, the excavations carried out on the “Parc aux Chevaux” revealed a group of large houses with the characteristic layout of the urban aristocratic residences of Roman Italy, organised around an atrium, with bathrooms, peristyle garden, etc., which invite us to see a residential district of the Eduan elite, very early Romanised. Developed springs, such as the “Fontaine Saint-Pierre”, provided the necessary water for the inhabitants and craft activities. The highest points of the site, the “Chaume” and the “Terrasse”, probably had a political and religious vocation, as shown by the small chapel of Saint-Martin built on the site of a Gallo-Roman fanum.
The occupation of Bibracte lasted only about a century. At the turn of our era, the site was abandoned and the capital of the Aedui was transferred to the Arroux plain, 25 km to the east, where the town of Augustodunum, now Autun, was founded. The exploration of the Mont Beuvray therefore makes it possible to study the development and functioning of a city representative of the last days of the Iron Age, from its birth to its abandonment. In particular, it makes it possible to measure the progressive impact of Romanization, which began before the Caesarian conquest through the privileged contacts established between the Aedui and Rome. It is also a question of understanding the organization of the oppidum, its collective spaces, its neighbourhoods and their evolution, its fortifications. Finally, the research programme aims to reconstruct the daily life of the Gauls of Bibracte, through the remains linked to crafts, food and trade.

Fig. 3: Bibracte site map (drawing Bibracte).

The research carried out between 1987 and 1995 under the direction of Prof. Bonenfant focused on the “Pâture du Couvent” district, along the main road crossing the oppidum. They made it possible to study a vast set of stone and wooden cellars, dating back to the early Augustan period and already partially uncovered by Joseph Déchelette, who had made them, in his famous Manuel d'archéologie celtique (1914), the model of Gallic habitation.
After several years dedicated to the publication of this first research, the CReA-Patrimoine resumed field excavation in 2009, under the direction of Laurent Bavay. Conducted in association with a team from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon led by Daniele Vitali (until 2010, professor at the University of Bologna), the research focused on the area of the “Parc aux Chevaux”, in the centre of the oppidum
Designated PC14, the structure studied is a very large platform bounded by a stone wall (its northern side is more than 100m long), whose construction dates back to the final phase of the site's occupation, during the late Augustan period. The function of this monumental development, probably of a public nature, remains unknown and no construction could be identified on the platform. However, it shows a change in the use of this sector of the oppidum. Indeed, the backfill that constitutes this artificial terrace has sealed a succession of previous levels, of a domestic and perhaps artisanal nature. This situation thus offers an opportunity, rare in Bibracte, to study over a large area the urban planning of the Celtic agglomeration prior to the last Augustan developments.

Fig. 4: One of the stone cellars (PCO2bis) studied by the ULB between 1987 and 1995 on the Pâture du Couvent (photo F. Schubert). Fig. 5: Excavations of an amphora concentration on PC14 (photo Bibracte/A. Maillier).

The excavations carried out each summer established that this platform, hitherto considered a major transformation of the topography in this sector of the oppidum, was in fact the reconstruction of an existing platform. The structures sealed by the last backfill of the PC14 platform were already installed on an artificial terrace, held by a wooden retaining wall. The final state therefore marks the replacement of the perishable material fence wall by a stone masonry wall, a testimony to the Romanization of construction methods well documented elsewhere in Bibracte. The earlier levels, mainly dating from the period of La Tène D2c, consist of wooden buildings, at least partially with a craft function, a stone lined well, and a vast unbuilt space, covered with a floor. Pits associated with the structures provided abundant material, amphorae and metal objects. 
The fieldwork was completed in 2016 and gave way to post-excavation studies in preparation for the final publication.

Fig. 6: The Belgian-Italian team (ULB and Bologna) of the 2009 campaign (photo Bibracte/A. Maillier).

- On the website:
- On the ULB excavations: P.-P. Bonenfant, L. Bavay, Fr. Boyer, K. Gruel, V. Guichard, J.-P. Guillaumet, L. Jaccottey, A. Letor, F. Olmer, J. Wiethold, « Fouilles de l’Université libre de Bruxelles à Bibracte (1987-1995). La Pâture du Couvent, Îlot des Grandes Caves », dans : V. Guichard (éd.), Études sur Bibracte 2, Glux-en-Glenne : Centre archéologique européen, 2014 (Bibracte 24), p. 1-157.

- Bibracte's annual excavation reports are available on the open archive HAL.