La Dépêche du Midi
21 August 2003
There's nothing under the Tour Magdala
RENNES-LE-CHATEAU (11): The villagers began excavations yesterday morning
“That noise is the wood breaking”. Immediately all eyes turn to the two men digging under the Tour Magdala at Rennes-le-Château. The gaze of academics, journalists and elected officials all remains fixed on the hands of the two individuals who are clearing the ground, to inspect what they have found. Will they finally discover the treasure or the secret of Abbé Saunière? Unfortunately no. It rapidly turns out that what they have found is just a large stone.
But at least we now know the identity of “the anomaly” detected in April 2001 by researchers from the University of Long Beach, California. Twice they used high-resolution ground penetrating radar (GPR) to scan the soil of the church and the Tour Magdala. Under the church they discovered an annular crypt and, underneath the tower, an “anomaly” the size of a treasure-chest.
Now we know there's nothing under the Tour Magdala. No treasure, and no treasure-chest which might furnish some clues to the fortune or secret of Abbé Saunière. Now the pseudo-researchers can stop digging tunnels under the tower (see below).
THE AIM: TO CALM THINGS DOWN
Yesterday, around 8 a.m., under the aegis of bailiff Maître Coste, the villagers began excavating underneath the tower to check out the nature of this “anomaly” - 55 centimetres down exactly. To go down to 60 centimetres you need permission from the regional directorate of cultural affairs (DRAC). In any case, the detected object was believed to be lying about 55 centimetres down.
This excavation, which was agreed to by a majority vote of the village council, had several objectives. First, to calm things down. The announcement of the American discovery “had led to a recrudescence of unofficial excavations” on the site.
Also, the mayor wanted “to convince the government departments concerned” (meaning DRAC, which had refused the village's request to open an excavation-file on the site) “that it was high time that they took an interest in the site of Rennes-le-Château, whose name, Rennes, seems to be one of the very few place-names in the Aude which is attributable with any certainty to the pre-Roman period, while scientists have also found evidence of stable human occupation going back to the Neolithic era” (see below).
“To achieve these goals would result in Rennes-le-Château being assigned the status of a site of special archaeological interest. The villagers' goal is not to excavate at all costs, but rather to win recognition for the village's patrimony and historical richness, something which would undoubtedly make it possible to acquire a fuller understanding of civilisational developments during a little-known period of our history”, concludes the mayor, Jean-François Lhuillier, thus sending a clear and unequivocal message to the various government departments.
Jean-François Lhuillier: “The site should be classified as a site of archaeological importance”
The mayor of Rennes-le-Château is fed up, as he made all too clear yesterday morning. Since the beginning of the summer, ‘unofficial’ excavations in the village have substantially increased. In fact he's stopped counting the nut-cases who dig tunnels under the church or the Tour Magdala. “It's dangerous. And they'll end up damaging the buildings too”, says Jean-François Lhuillier in despair.
The mayor has therefore launched an appeal for the village to be officially classified as a site of archaeological interest: as he explains, digging up the village currently renders the excavators liable only to a 200 € fine, whereas if the site was officially classified they would be facing six months' imprisonment. That should be enough of a deterrent to calm things down.
Professor Barratolo: please let us excavate
Yesterday Professor Barratolo, an Italian who is accompanying the team of American journalists who are currently shooting a film in the village, had a disappointment. Not due to the discovery of a stone instead of a treasure-chest (see above), but because of the attitude of the French government departments or, more specifically, DRAC.
Recently DRAC refused the villagers' request to open an excavation-file, claiming a lack of scientific evidence.
For this eminent specialist in late antiquity, however, the site of Rennes-le-Château is itself a genuine treasure. “We have discovered carvings which suggest that the church is not exclusively Romanesque. We're also hoping to find a Gaulish oppidum”, he adds.
During his fieldwork the professor also discovered coins of the Celts (4th century BC), the Romans (Emperor Claudius (41-54)) and the Visigoths (around the 5th century AD), as well as potsherds from the 5th century BC. “We've therefore uncovered evidence that this site was occupied from the 5th century BC to the 5th century AD”, the mayor emphasises.
To these discoveries we should add the possible annular crypt under the church which was discovered by the American researchers using the same technique as the anomaly under the tower. This could contain two tombs, and it would date from the 5th century AD. “That would show that pre-Christian religions were practised on the site”, comments Professor Barratolo.
But despite all these discoveries, DRAC refused to open an excavation-file, which explains the Italian professor's disappointment: “I don't understand it. The French are excavating in Pompeii and in Rome. But they won't let us excavate here in Rennes-le-Château”.