The causses of Quercy are dotted with dolmens constructed from blocks of limestone local to the region, some very well preserved, others much less so.
Jean Clottes' article(1), translated below, on the recent history of re-use and destruction of the dolmens of Lot, highlights the damage being caused to this important heritage.
In general they are on private land. But several well-preserved examples are officially classed as historic monuments and even signposted, such as the dolmen of Pierre Levée near Barrières, in the commune of Miers which adjoins Montvalent.
Although one comes across examples of the reuse of dolmens that are often harmless and sometimes even amusing, this practice is, alas, too often destructive.
In effect, out of 187 dolmens identified to date in the Lot department, 105 had lost either the table or one of the side stones (with the consequent collapse of the chamber). That is, one of the essential elements was missing from over 56% of dolmens. Furthermore almost all dolmens not protected by a mound no longer possessed the head stone facing the opening.
This deplorable state of more than half of the dolmens of Lot is due mostly to the 'archeological searches' they have suffered. This is not new. In 1831, Delpon, to explain the destruction he had found, wrote : "We see in a passage from Cassiodorus that one of the responsibilities of the sayons(2) of the goths was to open the tombs in which they suspected treasures were to be found, respecting at the same time the ashes of the dead. It is therefore assumed that the Visigoths, when they were masters of Quercy, carried out investigations in the megalithic tombs of this region."
Delpon himself "researched" 52 dolmens. Garrigou and Duportal had 'visited' a hundred in 1869 and Castagne declared, "We have had more than 50 dolmens opened in all points of the department." The term 'opened' is significant; the dolmens of Lot were (and are) usually buried in the centre of a mound, of variable size, with only the capstone (or table) flush with the surface of the mound, the side panels and head stone being hidden. Therefore, to be able to conveniently reach the chamber, it was necessary to remove the table that sealed the dolmen - and it was more comfortable to split and remove the pieces than to move it in one piece.
This kind of destruction is still practised, as we found at Lac de la Peyre (commune of Grèzes, Figeac : almost completely destroyed, only one slab is left in place : 3.90 m long x 0.30 m thick x 1.25 m high) or at Suquet III (commune of Espagnac, Figeac : a chamber measuring 2 m x 0.80 m wide and 0.50 m high). These are two dolmens that have been violated and degraded relatively recently.
Very often dolmens, being natural landmarks, were used to support the countless low walls that criss-cross the causses, and also frequently marked crossroads in the paths. But, when the low wall collapses, the dolmen is doomed to destruction because it is very tempting for farmers to take the table or vertical side stones to repair the disaster. This is what happened to the dolmen Vichelles I (commune of Livernon) whose table would have measured around 6 m long, and the dolmen of Trégodinasse (commune of Gréalou) which must have been most impressive given the dimensions of the mound: 16 m diameter and 1.10 m high.
We have also observed some curious cases of partial destruction and 'camouflage' to dolmens when 'cazelles' (those beautifully constructed large dry stone huts used by shepherds) were built over the dolmen whose slabs then served either as a lintel or fireplace. The dolmen of the Cabane des Ossements ("Hut of Bones", commune de Rocamadour), with its the evocative name, searched and documented by Father Lemozi, was completely covered and protected by a cazelle. That of the Earl of Mas (commune of Saint-Chels) was less fortunate, with no more than three slabs remaining, 2 to 3 m long, 1.50 m wide and 0.30 m thick, two of which support a part of the wall, the other lying flat on the ground.
Finally, we must point out the unique case of a dolmen at Issendolus whose table was removed around fifteen years ago and recut to serve as an official monument. The stone is currently standing alongside the D681 in the locality of Bouyet (commune of Gramat) and carries an engraved plaque commemorating the rounding-up of hostages in Gramat during the German occupation of World War II...
Total destruction of megaliths
No wonder, therefore, that the dolmens of Lot, like those in many other regions, are fast disappearing and it is difficult to make an accurate inventory.
Delpon in 1831 estimated that the number of dolmens in Lot was greater than 500. In 1863 and 1864 A. Bertrand, certainly based on Delpon's information, also cited the figure of 500 dolmens. But a 1878 list of dolmens and covered walkways in the whole of Gaul came up with no more than 287. As for the Bulletin of the Anthropological Society of Paris, it gave 284 in 1880 (a figure provided by Castagne). In 1889 Castagne himself corrected this figure and said he had listed 350 dolmens but thought that the number in Lot was even higher and should be between 500 and 600.
But it is the inventory of 1880 that will almost always be quoted. In 1901, Mortillet attributed 285 dolmens to Lot, as did Déchelette in 1908. F. Niel in 1958 and Glyn Daniel in 1960 also published the figures of Déchelette.
Note the exception of A. Niederlender who, in 1956, estimated the number of dolmens in Lot to be about 400. There must really be even more, but we can never know, even approximately, how many there were in total. Delpon's figure, which is often considered exaggerated (see G. Daniel "The wildly inflated figures for the Lot ..." was probably true in the early nineteenth century but is no longer true today.
Indeed, although the destruction of dolmens has taken place throughout history, it has been particularly common in the last hundred years or so.
The inventory of 1880 showed the number of dolmens in each commune, and these figures rarely correspond to the current reality. There are now no more than 13 dolmens in the commune of Livernon instead of 17 and three in the commune of Durban instead of 11. Sometimes place names remain and allow us to understand the circumstances in which a particular dolmen was destroyed. The dolmen of Pierre Levée (commune of Saint-Chels) was on the route of what is now the D82 road and was blown up with dynamite during the construction of the road. The only remains of the dolmen of Pierre Levée of Cayre (commune of Gréalou) is a side slab, alongside the road that cut the mound in two. As for the dolmen of Pierre Levée at Assier, which was particularly impressive according to older people who knew it before its destruction there forty years ago, it was destroyed by the construction of a new quarter of Assier to which it gave its name.
Sometimes it is simply greed that has destroyed dolmens and menhirs. Viré cites the case of the magnificent dolmen of Autoire, measuring nearly two meters high, which a peasant dynamited to "find the treasure". And, in 1834, Chaudruc Crazannes cites the case of the second menhir of Bélinac (commune of Livernon) which was demolished for the same reason in the eighteenth century, as well as that of the menhir of Villeneuve (commune of Saint Pantaleon) which disappeared in the mid nineteenth century.
The local peasants were often tempted to make use of the stones, always dressed, for multiple purposes. At La Jalie (commune of Saint-Sulpice) slabs of a beautiful dolmen were used in the making of a stairway, about 70 years ago. Nowadays only the mound remains. In the same commune, at Mas de Breil (Saint-Gery), a contractor removed the stone of a dolmen to rebuild a low wall that had collapsed. There remains only a fragment of the slab and the mound. A Gréalou, at Mas Mondieu (aka Pech Laglaire), one can see a beautiful single dolmen close to the D82 road. This megalith whose chamber measured 3.20 m by 0.80 m by 0.95 m high was almost completely destroyed twenty years ago by an entrepreneur who had already broken half of the table with a sledgehammer when a farmer, a resident of the neighbouring causse, forced him to stop, saying he did not want this dolmen, "that he had always seen there, and his father before him", to be wiped out. Already in 1869, Garrigou and Duportal denounced the vandalism of so called 'stone merchants' saying, "These local stone merchants demolish the dolmens for cheap stone and then sell it at a high price."
Each year, in Lot, dolmens deteriorate, change and disappear. These cases of mutilation and destruction are more often caused by ignorance than by pure vandalism, because the peasant of the causse is essentially conservative and is attached to his land and its history. But how many times have we heard of a 'table of sacrifice' or 'gold coins that the Druids put in the dolmens'! The prospect of finding a treasure is obviously very tempting, especially in these poor areas. Recently, however, the most serious damage is caused by the public's enthusiasm for prehistory, a craze exploited by tourist propaganda. Every summer, holidaymakers armed with shovels and pickaxes fall on our dolmens and, in the hope of some sensational discovery, dig out what sterile earth remains in the burial chambers. It is obviously impossible to catch them in the act as these "searches" take only a few hours. Since they never refill the chambers, the side stones, no longer supported by the infill, eventually collapse and the dolmen is destroyed.
All this shows the relative nature of the various megalith censuses and in particular that of 1880. That census is now completely out of date; first, because many dolmens that were cited without a description or a location have now disappeared and, secondly, because the census was very incomplete due to not having covered all the communes of the department.
There must be between 400 and 450 dolmens in Lot. This figure, which the current census will help us to bring up to date in the near future, is relatively large, placing Lot just behind Aveyron in the dolmen league table of France, which is not surprising given its geographical position. However, it is far from being absolute because it is certainly much lower than it would have been in the early Hallstatt invasions....
(1) Jean CLOTTES, Les dolmens du Lot : réutilisations et destructions à l'époque moderne. In: Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France. 1963, tome 60, N. 7-8. pp. 438-446, doi : 10.3406/bspf.1963.3929, http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/bspf_0249-7638_1963_num_60_7_3929
(2) Sayon : originating from the Visigoths : a local judge/official.