Christian Lassure

Ce texte constitue la traduction anglaise de la première partie du bilan publié dans le tome XI (1987) de L'Architecture vernaculaire : « Le CERAV et les études sur l’architecture de pierre sèche de la France : bilan et perspectives ». Cette traduction a été publiée dans le tome XIII (1989) de L'Architecture vernaculaire.

Notice: The purpose of this paper is not to assess our present knowledge of dry stone architecture in France. Its sole aim is to give an account of the role played by a national societythe CERAVin renewing that knowledge in the past ten years.


In France, the study of dry stone architecture started in the last thirty years of the 19th century as an outcome of celtomania: the dry stone edifices built by peasants in Provence, Burgundy or Auvergne were ranked in the writings of some local scholars with Celtic or Gaulish dwellings and fortified camps despite the denial of a few serious but unassertive historians. Such a conjuring trick enabled these scholars to claim the title of archeologists without ever having carried out any excavations. In fact, the only name they are entitled to is that of archeomaniacs.

These two trends were seen to evolve side by side throughout the 20th century, but not always peacefully. If they led, in some regions, to quiet arguments that were confined to scientific journals, in others, on the contrary, they erupted publicly into violent controversy and even went as far as legal action. Not many scientists were willing to openly reject the wild ravings of archeomaniacs. We find, among other courageous contradictors, archeologist Fernand Benoit in Provence, museum curator Paul Marcelin in Languedoc, archivist Pierre-François Fournier in Auvergne, abbot Bernard Lacroix in Burgundy, professor Jean Lachastre in Périgord.


The last manifestation – and the most harmful one – of the archaistic thesis is undoubtedly to be found in the writings of Pierre Desaulle in the sixties. Unlike his predecessors, he was not content with having his articles published in scientific journals: he went as far as getting a leading publishing house in Paris to publish his complete, unabridged works, thus drawing the attention of a wide public to the archaistic thesis and consequently to dry stone huts. For Pierre Desaulle, huts in Provence are connected with the major periods of the prehistory, protohistory and history of Provence: the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age, the early Iron Age, the late Iron Age, the Romano-Gaulish period, the Merovingians, the Saracens, the Middle Ages, the Vaudois wars, the modern period.


In 1977, 12 years after its publication, Desaulles book was still causing havoc in people’s minds in Provence as well as in other regions. But the overall context had changed, as the Celts and other ancient peoples had gone out of fashion, making way for the vanishing peasant societies and their material culture. For several years already, a number of specialists in rural studies had been inventorying and studying dry stone huts locally. To them, these were no more than the remains of a vernacular architecture dating back to the modern period: thus Victor Allègre (Villes-sur-Auzon, Vaucluse), Clément Amphoux (Miramas, Bouches-du-Rhône), André Cablat (Hérault), Pierre Dalon (causse de Limogne, Lot), Benoit Delarozière (Châtillonnais, Côte-d’Or), Serge Desneiges et François de Lanfranchi (the Bonifacio region, Corse), Christian Devalque (Mornas and Piolenc, Vaucluse), Michel Gourdon et Jacque Natale (plateau of Caussols, Alpes-Maritimes), Pierre Haasé (Yonne), Michel Rouvière (Vinezac, Ardèche), etc. As for me, as early as 1973, I had attracted the attention of specialists with my writings on the "lithic vestiges" or dry stone constructions of the former Lot vineyard.


Being aware of the wide geographical distribution as well as the historical dimension of this phenomenon, I made plans to assemble and publish a collection of local and regional monographs in order to create a sensation. This project became a reality in the summer of 1977 in the form of two volumes containing the contributions of the authors quoted above. On the initiative of co-editor Jean-Michel Lassure, the system of publication adopted was that of a journal bearing the title "dry stone rural architecture", split into two series – an annual volume and a supplement appearing at irregular intervals.

Added to the various monographs were articles relating to fundamentals and methods, analytical and critical bibliographies, and summarised articles aiming to put research on a healthy and sound footing and grant it efficient means of investigation. At the very beginning was an editorial defining dry stone rural architecture and establishing it as a completely separate area of study, with its own specialists and journal.

Two aspects which are vital to the area of study were tackled in the leading articles:
- on the one hand, the analysis of the constructions as to building methods and the Resistance of Materials (Christian Lassure: "An attempt at architectural analysis of dry stone constructions", and Jean-Luc Obereiner, "Facts useful in the study of dry stone corbelled vaults");
- on the other hand, the problems raised with regard to dating the constructions (Christian Lassure: "Facts useful in the dating of dry stone constructions"). We will come back to these studies further on.

The analytical and critical bibliographies used a system invented by myself in 1976 in a "Bibliography of the dry stone rural architecture of the Quercy and Périgord regions, an analytical and critical review". The aims were not only to supply the researcher with a complete chronological list of the works dealing with all or part of the question, but also to assess research by reexamining critically the fruit of all these writings. The two new regions concerned were Vivarais (Christian Lassure) and Burgundy (Pierre Haasé).

In order to acquaint a public interested in rural architecture in a wider sense, with the journal and its area of interest, an informatory text was published sketching a wide panorama of dry stone constructions in France in a national journal connected with the protection of rural architecture: "Maisons paysannes de France", under the title "dry stone rural architecture in France".


Following the stir caused by the two published volumes, the promoters of the undertaking, seconded by those of the authors living in the Paris region, decided to set up a society under the 1901 law, the "Centre d’études et de recherches sur l’architecture en pierre sèche" or "CERAPS", which would give moral and financial support to the newly-launched journal. The CERAPS was officially established on 6th January 1978.

Under the aegis of this society a second annual volume was published that same year, following along the lines of the first two volumes: new monographs of sectors, new methodological studies, new critical bibliographies and new reviews. To the initial 21 authors were added 11 new ones, including Jean-Claude Fau (Saint-Antonin, Tarn-et-Garonne), Jean Guilly (the Auxerre region, Yonne), Jean-François Pitiot and Pierre Poupon (Badefols-sur-Dordogne, Dordogne) and François Véber (Sorges, Dordogne).


In 1979, tome 3 was published. Since the Reading Committee had received, from 1978, suggestions for articles dealing no longer merely with dry stone constructions but with other types of constructions in rural settings, the latter were granted space in the summary, while at the same time a change was effected in the title of the journal – becoming "L’Architecture rurale" – and in the name of the society – becoming the "Centre d’études et de recherches sur l’architecture rurale" or "CERAR"

The place occupied by dry stone architecture in the summary of this 3rd tome remains nevertheless a major one:

- new monographs concerning areas until then not investigated: the Béarn valleys in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (Jean-Jacques Cazaurang), the Nestes valley in the central Pyrénées (André Péré), the Centre-West region (Jean-Christian Bans), Saint-Pompon in the Dordogne (Jean Lachastre), etc.;

- but also, by myself, a clarification of Provençal terminology relating to dry stone constructions and an investigation into the origins and date of construction of a hamlet in dry stone in Gordes (Vaucluse), set up as an open-air museum.


In "Provençal terminology relating to dry stone constructions, scholarly myths and popular reality", I undertook to show up the linguistic trickery by which the word borie and its orthographic variants became established in Provence, while there existed, in the 19th century, a wide range of dialectic terms such as cabano, cabanoun, cabot, granjoun, agachoun, éguié, botigoun, jasso, etc. These terms found themselves replaced, as from 1860, by the word borie (fem.) / bori (masc.), an archeological invention by abbot A. Gay, and taken up by J. Gilles, David Martin, F.-N. Nicollet, Charles Cotté, etc. Now, while there exists in Provençal and in other Occitan dialects, a word borio (fem.) / bori (masc.), this refers to a hovel, a shanty east of the Rhône (bori) and an isolated farm west of the Rhône (borio). This is revealed in Frédéric Mistral’s dictionary and also, to a certain extent, from the toponymy. By means of a lexical superimposition, the authors at the beginning of the century built up for themselves a topic of investigation and archeological study from what was only an ethnological reality contemporaneous with those researchers. To conclude this assessment, I proposed adopting a generic term with vernacular roots, i.e. cabot/chabot, which referred, in effect, according to Mistral, to a dry stone hut and is still employed in North Provençal dialects.

In "Problems in identifying and dating a hamlet in dry stone, the "village of the bories" at Gordes (Vaucluse): initial results of an investigation", I was particularly concerned with determining the true age and origins of a group of Gordoise huts which have been transformed into an open-air museum and presented by one author as being Merovingian (Pierre Delaire, 1964), and by another author as being Ligurian (Pierre Viala, 1976). Three types of data were used in the investigation.

Archeological sources proved to be disappointing. Coins found dated between the XVth and XIXth centuries but nothing proved that they had remained in the same place since being deposited. In fact, until about 1850-1870, all sorts of ancient coins were used in the French regions as "billon". Strangely enough, the pieces of pottery gathered on the site belong only to the kind of earthenware vessel used in the Apt region in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries. The historical approach using the land register of 1809 enables one to observe that this document identifies the site as belonging to the "hamlet of the Savournins" and as being divided into "sols de cabanes" and "sols de maisons". Some constructions visible nowadays do not appear on the land register and are therefore posterior to 1809. Finally, even if it housed a sedentary population, this area had neither church nor cemetery; it was simply a remote district of the village of Gordes. We learn from the economic history of the sector that the origins of the hamlet could be situated between 1500 and 1750 (but closer to 1750 than to 1500), during a period of land reclamation linked to a rise in the birth rate and a shortage of land. The highest rate of occupation of the hamlet seems to be located between 1750 and 1850, with the latter date marking the onset of the period when these constructions became deserted.

In 1980, two new volumes were published, under a further modified title: "L’architecture vernaculaire rurale". These were supplement N. 2, devoted mainly to an "Analytical and critical bibliography of the rural dry stone architecture in Provence", by Pierre Haasé and myself, and tome 4, along the lines of tome 3.

The aim of this bibliography, which reviewed 130 different references ranging between 1866 and 1980, was to illustrate the relationship, the distribution and the development of ideas in the study of dry stone architecture in Provence. The Provençal archeomaniacs are disposed of  – the purveyors of the so-called borie of prehistory or antiquity – while at the same time an account is given of the action taken in the 50s and 60s by the Provençal association called "Les Alpes de Lumière" towards making an inventory and a study of the constructions. The often harmful role of informative literature, an extension of a certain type of pseudo-knowledgeable literature, can be clearly seen. This bibliography is followed by a certain number of sectorial contributions on Provence, including a study on the architectural and morphological characteristics of the constructions which can be seen at the site formerly known as "Les Cabanes" at Gordes (Vaucluse), nowadays an open-air museum, and rebaptised "Village des Bories".

As for tome 4, it deals mainly with constructions in a region until then rarely referred to in the journal: the Languedoc region. Adrienne Durand-Tullou describes "The dry stone constructions of the causses of Blandas and Campestre (Gard region)", while André Cablat presents "The huts of the settlers of the Hérault area of the Larzac region: baracous, caselles, masets, baumas".

In that year 1980 – officially denominated "National Heritage Year" – the works and publications of the CERAPS/CERAR were henceforth recognised and became an authoritative source. And to such an extent that the "National museum of popular arts and traditions", which since 1977, has published its "Corpus of French rural architecture", rejected the Desaullian themes as just a lot of "unverifiable theories" and adopted, in its volume devoted to Provence, the conclusions of the CERAR In the architectural monograph devoted to one of the groups of buildings in the so-called "Village des Bories", the authors adopted the dates proposed in our article quoted above: "Some authors have thought they could confirm that these ‘bories’ had prehistoric origins; according to archeological data, it seems that they cannot be positively located prior to the XVIIth century, even if a human or neolithic presence is noted on the spot or nearby. Finally, on perusal of the land registry of 1809, it appears that certain constructions were built after this date" (p. 288).


In 1981, the journal "L’Architecture vernaculaire rurale" became "L’Architecture vernaculaire", and at the same time the CERAR became the "Centre d’études et de recherches sur l’architecture vernaculaire" or CERAV, in order to adhere more closely to the interests of its members and to the themes of the articles sent to it for publication. The expression "vernacular architecture" was borrowed from the British who used it to describe rural and urban constructions – other than civil, religious and military ones – "which belong", in Eric Mercer’s words, "to a type that is common in a given area at a given time" (1).

Between 1981 and 1987, eight new volumes were published (six annual tomes and two supplements), in which an important, if not exclusive, place was still given to the initial topic of interest.In the six annual tomes, new inventories of dry stone huts were published, concerning not only regions already examined (Dordogne, Hérault, Ardèche, Bouches-du-Rhône, Côte-d’Or and Gard) but also as yet virgin regions (Rhône, Saône-et-Loire). A bibliography compiled by Pierre-François Fournier was published for a region not yet dealt with: Auvergne.

In a third supplement, the irreplaceable role played by the oral tradition in gaining knowledge about dry stone constructions was highlighted in an article by François Poujardieu, "La place des cabanes en pierres sèche dans l’écologie des côteaux de Belvès, Daglan et Saint-Pompon (Périgord Noir)". Thanks to precious information provided by an aged inhabitant of the region, born in 1889, the author was able to reconstitute "the forestry, agrarian and zoological environment" of huts in the region as well as their social and economic background.

As for supplement N. 4, published in 1986, it adopted a new system, which aimed to assemble in one volume, for easier access, all the publications of one particular author on the dry stone constructions of a given region. This system was piloted by myself, taking as a region the Lot.


But undoubtedly, the major contribution by CERAV, in the area which interests us, between 1981 and 1987, was the organisation, in 1982, in collaboration with the Héraultais society "Arts et traditions rurales" and the Regional directorates of prehistoric and historic antiquities, of a colloquy on the "development of the techniques of dry stone construction in the Languedoc habitat from the Neolithic period to present times". Participants included, as well as the members of the CERAV, professional and amateur Languedoc archeologists. The proceedings of this colloquy were published in supplement N. 3, already referred to, in which we find about 20 contributions which enable one to compare the techniques of dry stone construction discovered in digs from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages and those noted for dry stone architecture of Modern Times. These proceedings open with the publication of the working text proposed by myself for consideration by the participants, i.e. a rapid historical survey of dry stone building traditions in Western Languedoc, in all its architectural forms, including funerary, military and domestic. Six major periods can be noted:
1/ Chasséens (3800-2500 BC) (domestic) and Ferrériens (2750-2200 BC) (domestic and funerary construction);
2/ Fontbouisse Civilisation (2200-1800 BC) (domestic and farm enclosures);
3/ Iron Age (VIIIth-IIth centuries BC) (forts and urban dwellings);
4/ From just before the Roman Conquest to the VIIth century AD (rural dwellings);
5/ From the early Middle Ages to the XIIIth century (rural dwellings);
6/ Modern Times, mainly the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth centuries (temporary rural dwellings).

For each period, uncertain areas, questions and contentious points were underlined and submitted for perusal by the participants. One contentious point relates to whether or not the Fontbuxiens (2200-1800 BC) used corbelled stone vaults in the circular constructions, while possessing, albeit at a very rudimentary level, the technique of corbelling. Contradicting the assertions of certain archeologists, the CERAV specialists deemed it impossible for the corbelled vault to have been used in circular huts, considering what remains were found (too small a volume of stones found in collapsed constructions, no trace of overhang or corbelling in remaining walls).


In 1981, the CERAV launched a new journal called "Etudes et rechercnes d’architecture vernaculaire", out of which each issue was to be devoted to an in-depth study, a synthesis or a regional monograph. Out of this series, three issues dealt with dry stone architecture.

The first one, "The tradition of dry stone builders: an end to anonymity", written by myself, set itself the task of revealing the real authors of an architecture traditionally presented as "anonymous" or "without architect". Relying on the existing bibliography, oral accounts, the study of land registers and the examination of inscriptions and dates carved on stone, I attempted to put an end to the professional and social anonymity of these builders, making a distinction between the "self-builders" – vine-growers, manual workers and settlers, breeders, shepherds, hunters, poachers, roadmenders, distinguished amateurs – and the "professional builders" – peasant-masons, general masons, masons specialised in dry stone construction, well-makers, and apprentice-masons. Comparisons are roughly sketched with the "casseddari" of Italian Apulia, the dry stone masons of Palestine, and the "barracaires" of Spanish Catalonia.

The existence of a building tradition which was at a peak in Modern Times was highlighted through two types of accounts: archive texts and dates engraved on buildings. As regards the latter point, a census for France as a whole shows that the buildings still standing are linked to the extension of cultivated land mainly during the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries and that their constructors, far from being neolithic, Ligurian, Gaulish and other such nonsense, were, as far as the oldest are concerned, peasants from the period of Louis XIV, and, as regards the most recent, peasants of the IIIrd Republic.

For some of these constructors, the names, or in their absence, the initials, were sometimes recognised, either through an inscription or by questioning descendents, or even through examining archives.


In 1985, in the series "Etudes et recherches" (Studies and Research), an enlarged and revised re-edition of my study which first appeared in 1977: "Useful facts in dating dry stone" was published.

In it, I reviewed the various means of dating which were available to researchers, emphasizing their relevance or irrelevance accordingly. To be noted are:
1 - Means of dating which are strictly archeological (stratigraphic layers, various pieces of debris found on the site, coins, inscriptions, etc.;
2 - Non-archeological means of dating, that is, on the one hand architectural reference systems (degree of architectural completion, type of equipment, stylistic details, etc.), and on the other hand written and oral traditions (manuscripts and ancient maps, land registers, legal deeds, evidence given by families and locally). In other words, this study outlines the three approaches which the specialist should combine in order to date the work of dry stone builders: first the archeological approach, then that of the architectural historian, and that, finally, of the pure historian.

Together with the two in-depth studies "The tradition of dry stone builders..." and "An attempt at architectural analysis...", these "Useful facts in in dating dry stone constructions" make up one of three insights destined to supply the dry stone fan with the methodical bases for a scientific study of his subject.


Still in the series "Etudes et recherches", in 1987 a communal monography ("Useful facts in inventorying the dry stone constructions of the commune of Sorges (Dordogne)", by Serge Avrilleau, Christian Lassure and François Véber) was published, which contained an attempt at architectural typology taking account of two types of criteria:
1 - the type of roofing, this generic term meaning the means used to cover an interior;
2 - the external morphology, this term meaning not only the basic plan but also the form of the elevation.

This typology, which concerns 38 intact buildings registered in one complete commune, is only proposed – by the present author – as "an effective means of understanding and putting into order an abundant and varied material reality and above all to make this known to a public composed of specialists and non-specialists". Its relative worth is nevertheless admitted: "inasmuch as (this typology) is based on the combination of criteria which were singled out", Whatever the case may be, this typology is original to the extent that it is the first in France to single out, as a basic criterion, the type of roofing, that is the very essence of all architecture since the main aim of architecture is to cover space.

Noting the existence, in neighbouring communes, of forms not represented in the commune under study, I decided that there was a necessity for future typological studies to be carried out on a much greater number of buildings, and to "leave the limited scale of the commune for the much greater scale of the département", in order to obtain "a greater typological variety, as well as a greater number of examples of rare types."


All along its first decade of existence, the CERAV granted the problems posed by the restoration of dry stone buildings, their proper place by publishing five articles or summaries of attempts carried out in various départements (the Lot, the Vaucluse, the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Ardèche).

Similarly, after the scientific bases of experimental building of huts with dry stone vaults had been established in 1977 (in tome 1), the CERAV gave an account of various building efforts carried out by its members or by other individuals or societies; in all, there were three experiments: in the Moselle, the Ardèche and the Hérault. These experiments were concerned with measuring the amount of materials and the time necessary to construct a building, given a particular model, and to determine the possibilities and the limits of the various techniques of dry stone vaults.

Finally, the CERAV described a rare example of transferring an endangered building, a summer pasture hut in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, to a protected site in 1980.


Aware of the geographical extension of this phenomenon beyond national frontiers, the CERAV also granted in its journals, a place to full or abbreviated translations and summaries of foreign articles concerning mainly Italy (Liguria and Sardinia), Great Britain and the West Bank. Moreover, it published bibliographies for a certain number of countries abroad, namely, the British Isles, the United States, Italy and Spain.


It is not exaggerating to say that the CERAV – and this is a fair homage to all the researchers who have worked under it  –  has completely renewed knowledge as regards rural drstone architecture, an area which at first was its sole centre of interest, and then one of its areas of study among other types of construction. It has been able to attract the majority of newly-formed researchers, supplying them with precious means for investigation. Its publications have become indispensable reference works, purchased as much by amateur or professional ethnologists as by university research centres, regional Survey Commissions, Departments responsible for antiques, etc. Its work is frequently referred to and used, and has inspired and continues to inspire, to various degrees, research, training courses, colloquies, exhibitions, and informatory articles in a certain number of regions. Some examples are:
- the study of huts in the canton of Nolay (in the Côte-d’Or), carried out by Elisabeth Réveillon on behalf of the Regional survey of Burgundy (1981);
- the census and survey of huts in the Luberon area (in the Vaucluse), carried out by the "Association pour la participation et l’action régionale" on behalf of the Natural regional park of the Luberon area (since 1985);
- the report on the cabornes of the Mont d’Or area in the Lyonnais region (in the Rhône), submitted by Claude Perron to the Regional survey of the Rhône region in 1986;
- the ancient history thesis relating to a network of dry stone walls on a former communal at Lavilledieu (in the Ardèche), presented by Patrick Monarchi to Dijon University in 1985;
- the course on "Dry Stone" organised by the "Quercy-Recherche" magazine in the Lot in 1977;
- introductory courses in dry stone construction proposed by the "Cévennes Terre de Lumière" society in the Ardèche in 1979 and 1980;
- the exhibition on "Dry Stone in Frovence" set up by the "Conservatoire du patrimoine ethnologique de Haute Provence", in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in 1985;
- the informatory article by Guy Barruol on the bories of Gordes published by the "Lithiques" magazine in 1985 (twenty years after his two articles which appeared in the "Archéologia" magazine, the author takes back his statements regarding the apparent age of these buildings, delving into the most reputable sources in so doing...).

It must nevertheless be granted that certain researchers, here and there, are uninfluenced by the CERAV, either through pure unawareness of its work, or through an utter belief in the archaistic theses. For example, there are the articles published by Roger Chéneveau in "Mémoires de l’Institut de préhistoire et d’archéologie des Alpes-Maritimes", and the book by René Dechère on "The huts of the Périgord region", two isolated cases, with no future.

(1) Eric Mercer, English vernacular houses, 1975.

Pour imprimer, passer en mode paysage
To print, use landscape mode


To be referenced as:

Christian Lassure

The CERAV and the Studies on the Drystone Architecture of France: an Assessment of a Decade of Research and Publication (1977-1987)

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