France's ancient Alesia dispute rumbles on
- 27 August 2012
- From the section Europe
Every French schoolchild has learned about Alesia.
It was the battle in which Julius Caesar beat the Gauls under Vercingetorix, thus bringing France into the Roman world.
Had it gone the other way, the French might have ended up German.
In the Asterix comic book The Chieftain's Shield, the opening scene shows Vercingetorix throwing his weapons not before, but on Caesar's feet.
Right now, there is an added reason to contemplate this key moment in early European history.
An impressive new museum-cum-activity centre has just opened on the official site of the battle, in northern Burgundy.
The Alesia MuseoParc, beneath the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, consists of a circular museum building containing artefacts and displays, and then - outside - a full-scale reconstruction of part of the Roman siege lines.
Visitors come away with a thorough grounding in Gaulish fighting techniques, or in Caesar's strategic genius.
What they hear little of is a controversy that questions the museum's very raison d'etre.
Understandable perhaps, because after 10 years of planning, and 75m euros (£60m) of investment, who wants to be told that the battle never took place here at all?
The more recent battle of Alesia - about its whereabouts, that is - goes back 150 years, to the time of France's Emperor Napoleon III.
After the surrender of Vercingetorix in 52BC, the Gaulish town was said to have been obliterated and lost for good. In The Chieftain's Shield, there is even a running gag about no-one knowing where Alesia is.
But in 1864, Napoleon issued an imperial decree stating that Alesia had now been officially identified as Alise-Sainte-Reine.
The emperor, the nephew of the original Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, saw Vercingetorix as an embodiment of France's national identity.
Though he was the loser at Alesia, Vercingetorix had by then forged the first ever pan-Gaulish alliance of tribes.
Nearly two millennia later, Napoleon III, whose legitimacy was, to say the least, precarious, wanted to harness this unifying spirit.
So when archaeological evidence began to emerge that possibly linked Alise-Sainte-Reine to some kind of Roman-Celtic confrontation, Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy became the officially designated site, and a monumental statue of Vercingetorix was erected on the hilltop where the citadel of Alesia was presumed to have stood.
Tellingly, behind his drooping moustaches, the chieftain bears the features of a young Napoleon III.
However from the start, there were doubts about the decision, which some said had been made in haste and with clear political motives.
It was not that there was no evidence for Napoleon's claim. The very place-name - Alise - suggested a link.
And excavations carried out in the 1860s brought to light a wealth of remains - coins, weapons, trench-lines, armour - that seemed to lend further proof.
But there were suspicions that it was all too, well - convenient.
And then exactly 50 years ago, the story took the dramatic twist whose repercussions are still with us today.
An archaeologist called Andre Berthier was profoundly uneasy about the identification Alise-Sainte-Reine as Alesia.
His method was to go back to the only sure evidence - contemporary histories - and construct an "identikit" for a location. Then he would pore over detailed military maps to find places that might correspond.
Applying this technique to the Alesia conundrum, he absorbed himself in Caesar's own De Bello Gallico, the general's personal account - known to generations of Latin students - of the conquest of Gaul.
It provides a clear description of Alesia. It is on a "very high" hill, impregnable except by siege. The feet of the hill are washed by two rivers, and there is a plain in front extending for three Roman miles.
These and other details convinced Berthier that Alesia could not be at Alise-Sainte-Reine. The portrait simply did not fit.
The hill, he thought, was not sufficiently high to oblige Caesar to lay siege. The plain was too wide, and as for the two rivers - "flumina" in Latin - they were pathetic little streams.
In 1962, after eliminating 200 alternative sites one by one, he came to a place called Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura, about 35 miles (56km) from Geneva.
It was exactly as Caesar had described.
'Lethargy, careerism and money'
Fifty years later, Berthier's work is being continued by his disciple, Sorbonne classics professor Danielle Porte, who is fired by an overpowering sense of injustice.
"The archaeological establishment has never paid the slightest heed to our doubts. They are too wrapped up in their own reputations, and now there are the economic interests at stake as well, with the museum.
"No-one dares question the orthodox thesis. Lethargy, careerism and money are all taking precedence over historical truth, and that is something I cannot put up with," she says.
Having identified the place from Caesar's texts, Berthier's next task was to explore the area for physical evidence.
Another ancient writer - the Greek Diodorus of Sicily - wrote that Alesia was an extremely important religious centre for all the Celtic peoples of Europe.
So the true Alesia should contain signs of that past. Excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine had mainly revealed traces from the later Gallo-Roman period, in itself suspicious because the town is supposed to have been wiped out.
Berthier's researches at Chaux excited him beyond his wildest expectations.
Buried in woods, he found the remains of an ancient rampart wall. Ms Porte says it is a classic "Cyclopean" bronze-age fortification, originally 10m (33ft) high.
They also found a rare anthropomorphic menhir - a stone "goddess" that would have guarded an entrance - as well as other Celtic and pre-Celtic artefacts.
In addition, a short distance away, the association claims to have found signs of a Roman siege camp, seemingly further confirmation.
In short, they not only believe the famous battle took place at Chaux, they also think Alesia itself was a substantial Gaulish centre.
This means that, lying beneath the woods, there is a wealth of ancient remains waiting to be excavated.
"We believe this is the most important unexcavated archaeological site in Europe," says historian and broadcaster Franck Ferrand.
"And yet the French state refuses to authorise excavations here. Why? Because it might jeopardise the official theory.
"It is the only case in history of an excavation being banned for cultural reasons."
The "Jurassics", as the dissidents are known, are convinced that the original excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine were deliberately falsified.
Ferrand quotes a worker who allegedly told a reporter at the time that the finds were so amazing, "it was if they had been put there!"
Some items are said to have been previously seen up for sale at auction, and there are questions over a chest of treasure that was supposedly found in the Roman lines.
According to the Jurassics, this contained quantities of coins from different Gaulish tribes in exact proportion to their reported presence at the battle. How perfect, they say. And how unlikely.
But these charges of what might be called skuldiggery are hotly contested by defenders of the official line.
Laurent de Froberville, director of the Alesia museum, will not quite say the Jurassics are cranks, but he does insist the vast body of scientific opinion supports the Alise-Sainte-Reine claim.
"So much evidence has been found in the ground here," he says.
"Just one example: There were three types of horses in the battle, from the Roman, Gaulish and Germanic cavalries. And we have found bones here from all three breeds.
"The Jurassic people rely far too heavily on one element: Caesar's texts. But we cannot be sure how accurate these writings are.
"Most experts rely on an accumulation of a different evidence. There comes a point - like in an detective enquiry - when everything points in one direction, and you have to say: It's here."
The arguments will no doubt run and run. Until Chaux is excavated, the dissidents will always be able to say the truth is buried in the earth.
For those tempted to ask "Why should we care?", Ms Porte has several answers.
First, on the location of Alesia hinges a great deal of the reputation of chief Vercingetorix.
If Alesia is indeed at the Burgundy site, then one is entitled to question the chieftain's leadership skills: The place is not particularly defensible.
However, if Alesia is in the Jura, Vercingetorix was blocking Caesar's path from a position of almost impregnable strength, and loses only because of the last-minute defection of one of the tribes.
Second, much dating of Celtic and Roman weaponry and coins hinges on the identification of Alesia with Alise-Sainte-Reine.
If a certain type of sword has been found there, it means that sword existed in 52BC, so similar swords found elsewhere must be from the same period.
All that archaeological science would have to be re-written, if it turns out that the remains come from a different period.
Ms Porte's third reason is that the site at Chaux-des-Crotenay needs to be preserved.
"I remember when I first came here with Andre Berthier, he said to me: 'This is the biggest Celtic site in Europe, and we are the only two to know it.'
"But one day the truth will out."