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visit the store   In Search of Alesia
by Philip Coppens
  Vercingetorix In 1936, French police detective and Vice-President of Société Préhistorique de France Xavier Guichard published his life-study into the place name “Eleusis” in a book called “Eleusis Alesia”, a study on the origins of European civilization. It had a print run of 500 copies, of which several were lost. There is a city named Eleusis in both Greece and Egypt. The Greek city is the most famous, as it is the home of the Eleusian Mysteries, one of the more famous initiatory cult centers of Ancient Greece. But the name is very common throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, which is what intrigued Guichard.

These are the conclusions that Guichard reached: all places that were called Alesia (or a name closely related), had been given this name in prehistoric times. He believed that the name derived from an Indo-European root, meaning “a meeting point to where people traveled”. The majority of these sites could be found in France, where there were more than 400. But, as mentioned, the name occurred as far away as Greece and Egypt, as well as Poland and Spain. Guichard was unable to find such names in Britain, which suggested to him that these cities might date back to the time of the last Ice Age, when Britain was covered with thick sheets of ice.

Guichard visited most sites figuring in his research in person. He discovered they shared two important characteristics: they were all located on hills overlooking rivers and were built around a man-made well of salt or mineral water. When he mapped the sites, he found that all the sites lay on lines radiating like the spokes of a wheel from a center, the town of Alaise, in eastern France. Guichard believed that 24 equally spaced radiating lines, plus four lines based on the sunrise/sunset at the two equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices, touched every site. This was a total of 28 lines, which could mean that the design had a lunar connection.

Since its publication in 1936, the work has largely remained untouched by most amateur and professional historians. No further research has been carried out, despite – or maybe because – the obvious conclusion, which is that our ancestors in prehistoric times had a network of towns across Europe, which had been carefully planned, clearly incorporating knowledge of mathematics, geodesy and astronomy. It also revealed that the site of Alaise was clearly extremely important, but why, remained unknown. The name of Alesia is important for another reason: it was the battle site in which Julius Caesar around 52 BC defeated the Gauls under Vercingetorix, thus bringing France into the Roman world. After the battle, an estimated 40,000 Roman legionaries were each given a Gaul as a slave, while the Celtic leader Vercingetorix was imprisoned for five years before being paraded through Rome and finally executed. The battle is clearly a key moment in European history. Yet it might come as a surprise that we don’t know where this battle occurred!

The problem, of course, is that – as Guichard highlighted, but no-one seems to have appreciated – there were several towns, especially in France, that carried the name Alesia. One of them is “the” Alesia battle site, but there is no absolute knowledge which one to pick.

For many decades, historians were inclined to leave the debate as is, but an impressive new museum-cum-activity center has 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 artifacts and displays, and a full-scale reconstruction of part of the Roman siege lines. But what you will not hear, is that there is great controversy about the precise location of the battle site.

Laurent de Froberville, director of the Alesia museum, has argued that there is much archaeological evidence to support his site is Caesar’s Alesia. But he also employs a type of academic reasoning and “logic”, which is so unscientific in attitude, that it truly should be exposed – but no-one seems willing to do so! Amongst the evidence de Froberville uses are the types of horse: three types, from the Roman, Gaulish and German cavalries. Bones from all three breeds have been found here. It is not necessarily the best evidence, but at least some.

Where did the information that three types of horses were used come from, though? Caesar’s account of the battle. But when confronted with the fact that Caesar’s account gives a description of the site, which does not conform with Alise-Sainte-Reine, de Froberville replies that those who dissent with him on the site of Alesia, rely far too heavily on Caesar’s texts! “We cannot be sure how accurate these writings are.”

In short, we have only one true description of the site of Alesia, which is Caesar. Yet, we are not allowed to rely on it, because we don’t know its accuracy? Yet, somehow, de Froberville uses this in such a way to argue that the evidence fits his site?

Recent excavations on Mont-Auxois did find a stone with an inscription IN ALISIIA, which according to some historians and archaeologists finally dispelled doubts about the town’s identity. Alas, the debate totally bypasses the known fact that what is not in doubt is whether the town’s name was Alesia; what was and remains in doubt, whether of all Alesia’s that exist in France, this was the one of the battle site. The problem dates back to 1864, when French Emperor Napoleon III issued a decree stating that Alesia had been officially identified as Alise-Sainte-Reine. In search of a unifying spirit for the French, Napoleon settled on Vercingetorix, who – faced with the Roman danger – had been able to forge the first ever pan-Gaulish alliance of Celtic tribes. Even though his army was defeated, unifying the various tribes and parts of France had been a major accomplish, with which Napoleon wanted to identify. A statue of Vercingetorix was placed on the hilltop where the citadel of Alesia was presumed to have stood. It is argued the statue looks quite like a young Napoleon III.

Any archaeological evidence of Gaulish settlement in and around Alise-Sainte-Reine has since been straightforwardly linked with the claim that this was the site of Alesia. In the 1860s, coins, weapons, armor, trench lines and like were all found, lending apparent support to the identification. But wherever one dug, most of what was uncovered dated from the later Gallo-Roman period, which was bizarre, as the town was supposedly wiped out by then! After the surrender of Vercingetorix in 52BC, Alesia was said to have been obliterated and lost for good. The town was also very hard to defend, suggesting Vercingetorix was not the cleverest of chiefs. Furthermore, the Romans said Alesia could only be taken by siege, but Alise-Sainte-Reine could definitely be taken in other ways. Alise-Sainte-Reine therefore appears to be not the right candidate! The Alesia MuseoParc In 1962, archaeologist André Berthier set out to prove that Alise-Sainte-Reine was not Caesar’s Alesia. He used Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico”, which provides a clear description of the town. It is on a “very high” hill, which meant that it could not be taken, except by siege. The foot of the hill was washed by two rivers, and there was a plain in front extending for three Roman miles. None of this corresponds with Alise-Sainte-Reine. The hill was not high enough, the plain was too wide and there were no rivers. After eliminating 200 alternative sites, Berthier settled on Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura, about 35 miles from the Swiss city of Geneva.

Few people nevertheless wanted to hear what he had to say. The only academic supporter comes from his disciple, Sorbonne classics professor Danielle Porte, who claims archaeologists have expressed no interest whatsoever in her or Berthier’s conclusions: “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.” She lists the reasons why: “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.”

In the Jura, Berthier found remains of an ancient rampart wall, originally 33 feet high and dating back to the Bronze Age. He found a rare anthropomorphic standing stone in the shape of a goddess, which is believed to have guarded an entrance to the fortified structure. Everywhere, there were Celtic and pre-Celtic artifacts. A short distance away, there were signs of a Roman siege camp, lending support that this might be Alesia.

Since the 1960s, there has been a sporadic drive to organize archaeological excavations here, but the French state has consistently refused to authorize these. Why? According to historian Franck Ferrand, the reason is that they do not want to jeopardize the official theory: “It is the only case in history of an excavation being banned for cultural reasons.”

Ferrand, however, claims that the original excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine were actually deliberately falsified to make it all fit. Ferrand argues that a worker allegedly told a reporter 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 treasure chest that was supposedly found in the Roman lines. Berthier definitely highlighted the problem of Alesia, but it is unlikely his site is the correct location. The problem is that all Alesia’s – as Guichard pointed out – were built on a high hill, only adding to the problem. Fortunately, there are other sources, like the Greek Diodorus Sicilus, who noted that Alesia was an extremely important religious center for all the Celtic peoples of Europe. It would make sense that the Celts would have taken their last stand at their most important religious center, just like we know that Julius Caesar was adamant in completely obliterating the Celtic priesthood – the Druids. And of all Alesia’s, Alaise at the center of the network of lines was clearly important, for some unknown reason. Is it not logical to assume that it was here that Vercingetorix was able to create a unified army, with the specific desire to safeguard this ancient sanctuary? Reconstruction of the pallisades at Alise-Sainte-Reine More than a century ago, Jules Etienne Joseph Quicherat (1814 – 1882) proposed that Alaise was Alesia and for a long time did not accept the thesis that it was Alise-Sainte-Reine, until he finally capitulated. Excavations carried out at Alaise have revealed structures, some from Roman times, some of which can be found at the museum of Besançon. They reveal that the site was important during the Roman occupation of Gaul and further excavations are required to find out whether these finds are compatible or not with the claim that everything in Alesia was destroyed. Was it destroyed and abandoned, or soon reconstructed into a Roman town? Why is the question of Alesia’s location so controversial? Why does the official line not even want to consider they might be wrong? Potte has argued that 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 rewritten if it turns out that the remains come from a different period. But Potte is not the first to criticize. In “Les Dossiers de l’Histoire”, Bernard Iselin, its Director of Publication, repeatedly drew attention to the debate, before finally writing: “At what point is it convenient to nevertheless pose the question with insistence: who is afraid of who? Who is afraid of what? Who protects who? Who protects what? Is it possible that something new can be so disturbing at this point?“ The answer is an obvious yes and now, the museum has thrown in an economic interest, which makes the debate all the more dangerous. The truth – that Alise-Sainte-Reine is not Alesia – is therefore surrounded with another layer of lies and scientific grandstanding, while the truth – that we don’t know, but alas also that science is unwilling to address and investigate – is once more pushed into the background. And more of our history is lost.