Monday, September 5, 2011

First Sunday: Wet Tomatoes and Nailing Heads to the Wall

Long-time readers will remember that a couple of years ago, I went to the Tomato Festival in Clapiers, an all-but-inaccessible suburb of Montpellier, and, thanks to the astonishing display by Eric the Tomatologist,  saw this astonishing fruit in all its multiple forms and glory. I missed it last year, but with E&J newly moved here and always looking for cool stuff to do, I'd been babbling about it for some time, and finally started seeing notices about its impending arrival yesterday, so we made plans to attend.

Only one problem: as the week wore on, threats of heavy rain kept appearing on the weather forecast and then getting pushed forward. We agreed to meet at the train station and then see what seemed to be the right thing to do.

Once there, it appeared that the worst was over, so we piled into the car and headed to Clapiers. There were some intermittent showers, but no big thing. We parked, walked to the park where the event was...and the heavens opened up. "What's that rock festival..?" E asked and I knew immediately what he was thinking: Glastonbury. Off at one end, an oboe band tootled bravely, while the various merchants hustled to cover their stuff up with thick plastic. This was Glastonbury with tomatoes.

Amazing tomatoes, it should be noted: the same long table, but pretty much every variety was different from last time. A huge amount of tomatoes was for sale, too, although not the more exotic varieties he was displaying. Still, very impressive, even if the ground was liquefying under our feet. Eventually, the rain let up somewhat and we made a dash for the car. It wasn't quite 3pm, and already a guy from the city was cutting down the signs directing people to the festival.

Back in the car, E said "Well, want to try something else?" Sure, but what? He had the answer: "Let's go to Lattes." Specifically, to the Lattara site. I wasn't quite sure of what this was, having confused it with another local Roman site which had just reopened, but it was absolutely the solution to the day.

* * *

Lattes lies south of Montpellier. In fact, as I discovered, at one point it more or less was Montpellier in terms of its domination of the local population and economy. It's just that it was all over 900 years before Montpellier got invented. It was huge, and was the natural outgrowth of the human settlement which had been there for 5000 years: there was a small display of Neolithic pottery and such, but the buildings you can see from the museum there are from the Roman era:

(Pardon the raindrops over on the left: you can only view the site through the windows).

From what I could make out, Lattera was populated by Gauls, Celts, and Romans, and administered by the Romans, who, in the great tradition of Romans out in the boondocks, went pretty native. Unlike the ones in Cologne and Mainz, though, the Latterans were kept somewhat in check by their higher-ups in Nimes, who really weren't that far away on the Via Domitia, the Roman superhighway that connected Spain and France.

What they did in Lattera was pretty unsurprising: they made wine and olive oil for export. The Greeks had started all of this, although there doesn't seem to have been much of a Greek presence in Lattera. But the Romans took full advantage of the ideal conditions for producing both. The wine got exported in amphorae

which stacked nicely in the holds of the smallish ships used to transport them, while up on deck were the much larger vats of oil.

Sorry, lady, nobody home.

There were also plenty of grains and fruits for the locals, and there was a chart on the wall showing the kinds of fish archaeozoologists have discovered in the trash from this era. Latterans ate well, and lived in houses with nice decorations: there's a reconstructed mosaic floor from a well-to-do house, as well as this charming, albeit downscale, mosaic made from seashells:

But the harbor, the source of all the action, began silting up and eventually, about 200 AD, it had to be abandoned. The Latterans moved elsewhere, until there was just a tiny village left. Then, the population center turned slighty to the northwest, the site of current Lattes, and around 400, a church went up, and the more or less modern history of the place started.

All of this is documented on the top two floors of the four-story museum, which would be worth a visit anyway, but one of the great things about this place is that the bottom two floors host year-long exhibitions. I'm still pissed that I missed the one about the wine business that ran when I first got here, because that would have filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding of the area. The one they have now is pretty spectacular, albeit not as well focussed geographically.

It's called Of Rites and Men, and is about some of the rituals, both private and public, practiced by the Celts, Iberians, and Greeks in Provence, Languedoc, and Catalonia. One of the big surprises was that Castelneau-le-Lez, the bourgeois suburb north of Montpellier where people move when they've made their money, the main street of which is one real estate office after another, had a major Celtic archeological site dating from the 8-9th century BC. I wasn't even aware there were Celts down here; clearly I've got more reading to do. Apparently one of the things they really liked to do was to take the heads of particularly gallant warriors they'd defeated back home with them and nail their heads to the wall in the village or exhibit them in their religious spaces. They also did this with their own heroes who fell in battle, and enjoyed carrying the severed hands of their enemies around, all strung together. Lovely folks otherwise, I'm sure.

The attempt to draw such a large and diverse geographical and cultural area into one themed exhibit sort of strains the show at its edges, and I found it a lot easier just to take each site as its artifacts are displayed and move on to the next one. Part of the problem is that not much is known about these rites from ancient texts because they weren't  particularly significant in anyone's big picture. Only the Greeks had writing, so what little we can surmise about these artifacts and the rites which produced them comes from them. The rest gets inferred from the disposition of the artifacts around the site.

In 2186, when they finally finish Tram 3 here in Montpellier, Lattes will be an end-point for the line (and maybe I'll finally be able to get a senior discount from them), and the Lattera site and its attendant Henri Prades museum (named for the archaeologist who started the modern excavation of the city) will be a short walk from the tram-stop. It's also accessible from Bus 18, from the Le Stade stop. Either way, it's well worth your time and attention, particularly once the weather changes and it's not so damn sunny outside. We got a taste of that on Sunday.

Oh, and one more thing: I'd been aware of it from the Fabre Museum here, but apparently all the local museums and so forth are free on the first Sunday of the month, which makes me want to research what else would make a good destination next month. Lattera's only €3.50 to visit, but hey, free's free!


  1. Hi

    I went with a combined CNRS Lattara & adjoining nature reserve day trip a few years back. We got a guided tour of the excavations. Problem is that winter water levels limit excavation to dry summer periods.

    In Greek times Lattara was bigger than Marseille, which is interesting.
    The East - West current created the sand spit that today closes the lagoon - previously Lattara was a major trading port.

    They have found Etruscan burial remains and are now excavating at the same depth on the other side of the city. Not much is known about Etruscans and CNRS researchers want to establish if the remains are from a one off traders house or evidence of an Etruscan colony - which would be unique in the Med.

    Lots of links :


  2. You may mean "unique *on* the Med" for the Etruscans; I seem to remember endless rows of gravestones in Italian museums. But yes, their presence over here would be a new thing.

    Thanks for the links!

  3. Perhaps Les Lunkheads are descended from Celts.


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