The Nerthe range of hills stretches west fom Marseille. and shows evidence of human occupation way back into mesolithic days. Here, at ‘Font-aux-pigeons’, a large overhanging cliff providing shelter and protection, 300 mesolithic dwellers were encamped around 6,000-5,000 B.C. They were hunter-gatherers with highly developed toolkits including large stone choppers for animal butchering and skinning to small micro-liths (plus bone) of awls and burins for the making of clothes.
The range of hills comes to an end above Martigues as they look down the Etang-de-Berre. This small site at Mourre-du-Bouef was once inhabited around 4-5 millenium B.C. By mesolithic hunter-gatherers or neolithic farmers? Probably a blend of both. Revolutionary anatolian agricultural techniques (re-sowing part of what you reap) had not yet swept this way. But they soon would – to change the world. They would arrive either by incoming migrants, or by cultural dispersal and infusion. Therein lies a particular archeological debate. Anyway, here, above Martigues, selective harvesting, plus the rearing of sheep and goats, was probably already engaged in.
Hill tops were safe places to set up camp. Attackers could be seen from afar. They were also good places to survey animal movements, either searching for prey or water, or following migration trails. This was still a good while before the coming of the Celts and before the first site at Martigues was built on the banks of the Etang-de-Berre at ‘Tholon’. At this time, coming down to the shores of the etang, for fish and shell-fish, was a risky business. Wild animals and unfriendly neighbours were also in the area and could possibly attack. Of course, the etang was slightly smaller in those days. Waters were still rising after the last ice-age, which had trapped huge water resources in the northern ice caps. Their retreat was a process that lasted several thousand years. But by the neolithic period, beginning around the 4th millenium B.C., levels were not so different than they are today.
Several other neolithic sites in the area concurrently existed e.g. the sites at Collet-Redon and Ponteau nestling on the plains. They are each separated by several kilometres, which perhaps explains the separation needed to share out the natural resources between the communities. Today, evidence of their existences can be found as a jumble of stones, the remains of foundation walls, semi-hidden amongst gorse and within a woody grove. A lot of imagination, and archeological analysis, is required to picture the lives and hardships of the people who first gathered those stones and from them, created their lodgings.
The Celts arrived early first millenium and set up their own neolithic bases, rearing sheep and planting seed. Protection continued to be an important consideration. In choosing this rocky peninsular at Tamaris, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the ‘Avatiques‘ who lived here chose well:
In fact, this is my favourite site. The peninsular juts out into the Mediterranean – literally translated as: ‘Middle of the earth’. This may be a sea, and not an ocean, but it is still very large. However, with a little imagination one can face east towards Italy and beyond, or west towards Spain, or south across the wide expanse towards north Africa and imagine the flimsy sailing boats of antiquity struggling against the waves and currents. Sometimes they were shipwrecked, leaving their hulls and cargo deep beneath the waters. Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians, Carthaginians… sailing the seas for trade and exploration.
A hillside in today’s town of St. Pierre-les-Martigues was another good site for a settlement, being shaded amoungst trees, and built on rocky slopes. Ramparts fortified the site, dated around the 6th century B.C. , making it an ‘oppidum‘ . Like Tamaris, this site was also inhabited by the Avatiques. Presumably, then, the threat came from pre-Celtic neolithic dwellers of the region – or possibly the Greeks. My knowledge here is a little shakey!
The Greeks arrived mid 7th century BC and found a charming spot the other side of Martigues at St. Blaise. This site stands on a hill top plateau, amoungst pine trees and is situated between two peaceful etangs. This idyllic site too had previously been occupied by Celts, but the Greeks ‘kind of took it over’ and it grew and grew, finally becoming a town encompassing 40 hectares. Stone to build the site was chiselled out from the rock along the coast and transported inland. Similarly was stone acquired to built the site of Marseille, 40 kms to the west. The ancient chisel marks are still evident on close inspection.
A group of inhabitants moved out towards the shores of the Etang-du-Berre. This is the site of Tholon, now under renovation. It was the first site settled in Martigues. Then ‘L’ile’ (the ‘island’) too became inhabited and grew in size and importance. From here, the history of the town of Martigues truly begins.
Then the Romans arrived, stretching out across the south of France, creating a new Roman province (Provence), before stretching north and finally subdueing the Gauls. In Martigues they dug out the swampy land between the Etang and the Mediterranean, making the first navigable canal. Further north at Glanum they took over an impressive Celtic site over looked by the ‘Les Alpilles’ range of hills. The site had been here since the 7th century B.C. when it was constructed around a water well where the Celtic god ‘Glan’ was said to live, along with his benevolant companions – ‘the Glanic mothers‘. For a while, under the Greeks, it became Hellenistic. It then became Roman under Emperor Augustus.