V. Case Study: Bibracte

Geopolitical Relations: The Aedui tribe occupied and controlled most of today's ecologically diverse Burgundy region, "one of the many crossroads of Western Europe" (Berry 1987:448). The Aeduans' control of the Arroux River valley at Bibracte and other oppida such as Mont Dardon and Mont Dône enabled them to exploit the "natural conduit" towards the growing Atlantic trade developing in Western Europe along the Loire and Seine Rivers (Berry 1987:448). In addition, Aeduan territory along the Rhone-Saone rivers corridor also enabled them to profit from the Mediterranean trade that rapidly developed from humble beginnings in 600 B.C. (Greek colony of Marseilles established) to entrepreneurial levels by the mid 1st century B.C.

Along with its many client tribes, its territory was bounded by the Loire River in the west with its client tribe neighbours, the Bituriges Cubi. However, the hostile Sequani tribe was on the Aeduans' eastern flank both tribes sharing the disputed Saone River. On the north border was the Seine River and its client tribe, the Mandubii. The south-west along the Rhone River was also disputed territory with the Aeduans' arch-enemy, the Arverni. Client allies of the Aeduans, the Segusiavi and the Ambarri, protected their southern borders.

Apart from rivers, there were swamps, forests and other difficult terrain that usually separated tribal zones. Boundaries were fluid in that constant 'renegotiation' existed among tribes and even within tribes with their oligarchies (elite warriors). A combination of factors such as free trade, gift-giving, marriages, exchanges of taxes and sheer numbers of warriors made up the mix of tribal relations. Powerful 'patrons' would emerge from the best combinations of these factors (whether among tribes or within a tribe) with the least resilient becoming the more subservient 'client' tribes or individuals (Crumley1987:406-407).

Economic Relations: Carole L. Crumley (1987) provides a detailed outline of the four broad sources of wealth of the Aeduan economy: taxation of commerce, import/export of commerce, commercial production (including stockbreeding, mining, artisanal activities and agricultural production) and finally protection of people and assets.





  • Taxation of commerce

Control of passage at fords, mountain passes; Dumnorix, an Aeduan oligarch, purchased right (bidding system) to collect tolls.

Mountain passes and river fords

  • Import and export of commerce:
  • - intra, inter tribal commerce as well as international trade
  • - exported: wool, building materials like timber and stone perhaps wine too.

Storage facilities required as well as boats, wagons and draft animals. People skilled in diplomacy and business

Nodes in transportation network: roads, tracks, streams, rivers, mountain passes.

  • Commercial production:

- Stockbreeding:

  • Horses
  • Cattle
  • Sheep
  • Pigs

- Metal-mining operations

- Artisanal activities: pottery, coins, bronze/ironworking, wool textiles

- Agricultural production: wheat, other grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, ham and cheeses

Access to excellent grazing land

Access to good grazing land

Access to poor grazing land

Access to land for piglots

Access to mines

Access to materials and patrons

Access to good farmland

Lush valleys

Uplands. Rolling hills


Pens in forests

Morvan highlands

Artisans' quarters such as Bibracte and Uxellodunum oppida

River valleys, rolling hills and uplands

  • Protection:

- need for security and personal protection

Cavalrymen (armed men and their horses)

Defensible places like oppida


Diplomatic or 'brokerage' skills

Hillforts and other fortifications


Some 2471 Gaulish coins (3000 if you include Roman) have been discovered at Bibracte (the capital oppidum of the Aedui) since the first excavations began in 1865 by Jacques-Gabriel Bulliot at the request of Napoleon III. A constant use of coinage is evident from the end of the 2nd century B.C. until the site was abandoned circa 20 B.C. The diversity of the coins used by the Aedui included 66% of regional coins with most other regions of Gaul represented except western Gaul and the western Narbonnaise region. The Rhone-Saone-Loire rivers trade is obvious from the collection of regional coins (Gruel and Popovitch 2007).

The large majority of coins were 'potin' or cast coins of little value. A small percentage of the coins were silver and gold.

Map of Gaul showing provenance of coins found at Bibracte oppidum (Bibracte Museum)

Social relations:

'Ascribed' and 'Achieved' status:

The Aedui tribe had shifted away from kingship to an oligarchic government (rule by an elite minority) where both 'ascribed' and 'achieved' status could be gained. In regard to 'ascribed' status here the old aristocracy or elite were born into the power positions of Aeduan society by inheriting their family's connections or clients. However, with the new opportunities created by an expanding economy and social outlook, new men could rise above birth and become 'achieved' nobles.

'Achieved' status methods:

Marriage was one way of enhancing a person's status. Dumnorix of the Aedui tribe married the daughter of a Helvetian tribal leader; moreover, he married his mother to a powerful nobleman of their client tribe, the Bituriges Cubi. Other factors that could gain 'achieved' status for Aedui men were bravery in battle, bonds of friendship like oaths, generosity (feasts and gift-giving) and creating 'status markers' such as 'oppida' construction. Importantly, all these factors combined to enable Aedui men to become patrons by building up clients or people who became indebted to them.


Both the nobility and the druids (priestly class) could serve as patrons of the lower class. Some wealthy lower class may also have followings. Controlling a large clientele or 'factione', a patron was similar to dominating a mafia-style 'brotherhood' (Crumley 1987: 410-411). Internal faction fighting was common. The most famous example of 'factiones' fighting within the Aedui tribe was between two brothers: Diviciacus (a druid) and Dumnorix.

The former argued strongly for the alliance with Rome to resist the Arverni-Sequani-German threat while his brother, Dumnorix, championed independence. Dumnorix even resorted to using diplomacy with the Sequani and German tribes. However, the German leader Ariovistus wanted control of Gaul; but, Rome and in particular Julius Caesar, stood in his way.

Dumnorix is depicted here as a fearless warrior- the enemy head in hand not a proven custom (Bibracte Museum)

The servant or follower with horse, shield and carnyx (Bibracte Museum)

Gaul was too divided in terms of tribes, 'factiones' and geography to centralise their political decision-making although an Arvernian oligarch, Vercingetorix, came close to achieving this during the Gallic Wars against Julius Caesar's legions.


Bibracte oppidum (Mont Beuvray, Burgundy) courtesy European Archaeogical Centre at Bibracte.

Location: Bibracte oppidum or hillfort is situated on the top of Mont Beuvray, part of the Morvan mountains in today's Saone-et-Loire and Niève departments, Burgundy region. The plateau on top (altitude 821 metres) consists of three hills and the site was fortified with a wall that extended over 5 kilometres using a construction method called 'murus gallicus'- timber beams fixed together with long iron nails then faced with stone blocks. A recently discovered second fortification wall has revealed an enclosure of nearly 135 hectares making a total area of 335 hectares (Romero 2006:18). An estimated population of 5,000-10,000 lived inside the oppidum.

Bibracte's extensive fortifications as represented by the coloured lines surrounding the hills on a model from Bibracte's Museum (left). On the right is a photo that was taken using an aerial laser scan called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) courtesy Scott Madry

Oppida network: Bibracte was only one of many oppida of the Aedui. However, it was also the most important. The Aeduans' main oppida and settlements were located well within the borders whilst their trading villages or 'vici' were situated along tracks protected by garrisons of warriors. Other Aedui oppida included Mont Dardon and Mont Dône.

The French Study research area: the heartland of the Aedui tribe (courtesy Carole Crumley)

The 'line of sight' location of three Aedui oppida: Mont Bouvray (Bibracte), Mont Dône and Mont Dardon. Celtic roads or tracks were built to keep oppida in sight rather than the shortest distance.

Fires were probably lit to warn other oppida of looming threats. Interestingly, fire festivals are still held in many Burgundy towns today (including Mont Beuvray) and the Celtic word Aedui means 'men of fire'.

Crumley and Marquardt (1987) list sixteen Burgundy sites where these feux Celtiques (Celtic fire festivals) are held. They are held around 24 June (Saint John's Day) or the summer solstice.

J.E. Dowdle's map from C.E. Crumley and W.H. Marquardt's (eds.) Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspective, (San Diego 1987:274).

Here is map of showing many Aeduean oppida in Burgundy (black dots). Many of these oppida were guardposts with a minimal permanent population.


J.E. Dowdle (1987) has researched both the pre-existing Gallic roads in Aeduan territory prior to the Roman conquest and the Roman roads that followed. He dispels the myth that only the Romans can build roads. His study reveals an extensive Aeduan road network already existed before the Roman conquest at all three levels: local, regional and supraregional. The Romans largely upgraded and expanded the already quite impressive road network (see the map above for Gallic roads).

The fact that little evidence exists of internal trade can be explained by an extensive trade existing in perishable goods rather than manufactured items. Caesar described the stockpiling of goods in large Celtic towns.


Bibracte was constructed circa 120 B.C. and was occupied continuously by 5000-20,000 people up to the building of a new 'green field' capital at Autun (Woolf 2003:113). Although we know little of the internal organisation of Bibracte, post built structures in compounds and a general absence of large 'monumental' public buildings were common in other oppida. At Bibracte there is a temple complex and the possibility of a forum area. For a short duration after the Roman conquest, Roman style buildings were built 'gradually' over the years using villa design and materials like masonry and tiles turning Bibracte into an early Gallo-Roman town (Woolf 2003:10,113).

Opinions seem to vary over the reason for the demise of Bibracte and other oppida in Gaul. Haussler (1993) relates how Augustus' law in 12 B.C. moved the Aeduan capital to the Gallo-Roman town of Augustodunum or Autun today some 27 kilometres away. Haussler (1993) suggests the possibility that this order to close oppida was given to support Drusus' (Augustus' step son) incursions into the territory of the Germanic tribes. It would ensure that the Gauls did not form a rear-guard second front that would threaten Drusus' advance (Haussler 1993:50).

The French Project in Burgundy by Crumley and Marquardt (1987) also supports this view. The project used extensive ground and aerial surveys that were placed on spatial distribution maps. These maps show a distinct settlement trend between the Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods: the former Celtic settlements were located in the highland regions fairly close to the oppida; the latter Gallo-Roman settlements occupied the lowland river valleys. This result may imply a forced settlement pattern.

Compare the map of the Celtic Gaul settlements or scatters on the left (note their location on higher ground contours) with the map of the Gallo-Roman settlements on the right (note their location in the river valley contours).

However, Berry (1987) mentions the "indifference" of the Romans to the continued occupation of these oppida such as Bibracte. The Romans knew from their Italian experience that economic expediency would prevail (Berry 1987:456). Woolf (2003) believes that the coexistence of hillforts and new towns into the Gallo-Roman period along with the chronological variability of oppida closures throughout Gaul excludes a draconian style Augustan/Julio-Claudian policy (Woolf 2003:115).

Functions: commercial, agricultural, industrial, religious and socio-political rules.

Bibracte's commanding position helped the Aedui to dominate the surrounding hills providing control of the Yonne, Saone and Loire rivers. Apart from controlling the surrounding territory with its commercial and agricultural resources, Bibracte also played an important industrial rule. Along with abundant coin production, Bibracte has yielded evidence of metal-working workshops in iron, bronze, gold and silver and enamelling (Crumley 1987:153). A high reading of lead isotopes at Bibracte confirmed it as a major metalworking/mining centre (Monna et. Ali. 2003).

A collection of Celtic iron knives. The top knife was found at Bibracte oppidum

A variety of Celtic iron tools found at Bibracte oppidum (Bibracte Museum)

Pottery manufacturing and an active market area existed too as well as trade in imported wine with its pottery containers called Campanian ware (southern Italy) and ager Cosanu ware (northern Italy); the latter 'finds' were by far the more prominent type of amphorae found by excavators at Bibracte (Loughton 2009:82,98).

Imported wine amphorae (Bibracte Museum)

'Common ware' (1st century BC) found in tomb 34 'Croix du Rebout', Bibracte oppidum. There were more than 60 funerary enclosures discovered and cremation was the norm

Another Aeduan product highly sought after was Morvan hams.

Bibracte would have also served as a religious centre for the worship of the goddess Bibracte. Two inscriptions dedicated to her have been found in Autun.

Finally, Bibracte served as the capital of the Aedui tribe. Here their 'council' of nobles would meet to elect their chief magistrate called a 'vergobret'. Bibracte's political importance was evident in 52 B.C. A large gathering of Gallic tribal leaders met at Bibracte to elect Vercingtorix the leader of their collective resistance against Caesar's 'hegemony' (power) in Gaul. Symbolically, Caesar stayed at Bibracte with his legions at hand at the conclusion of his long series of successful campaigns in order to write up his 'Commentaries' of the Gallic Wars before returning to Rome.

Layout of Bibracte:

Courtesy of Scott Madry and his informative website http://www.informatics.org/bibracte/ipixmain.html

Today there are nine main features of the Bibracte oppidum: (interactive click on map)

  • La Porte du Rebout (gate): one of the main entrance gateways. It has been excavated several times from 1868 by Builliot to 1996. The gate is an impressive monumental 19 metres wide and is now reconstructed to the late 1st century stage.

'La Porte du Rebout' gateway'– a reconstruction with timber frame called 'murus gallicus' and stone facing

Pascal Paris, Bibracte's resident archaeologist, explains the sophisticated 'murus gallicus' technique.

A model of the 'murus gallicus' rampart construction method (Bibracte Museum)

Click on name to go to virtual page: http://www.informatics.org/bibracte/port.html

  • La Pierre de la Wivre (Stone of the Wivre): a panoramic view can be seen from this rocky outcrop. It is named after a mythical creature of Burgundy, the wivre- half woman and half serpent. According to legend, political leaders were elected here.

Click on name to go to virtual site: http://www.informatics.org/bibracte/wivre.html

  • The Pâture du Couvent: a major water source for the oppidum. The cistern is 10.5 metres long and 3.65 metres at its widest point. Its southern tip is aligned with the summer and winter solstices. Discovered in 1987 it was restored with pink granite. Close by are the ruins of a large 15th century A.D. Franciscan monastery. Earlier Celtic and Gallo-Roman settlements are evident here too.

Click on name to go to virtual site: http://www.informatics.org/bibracte/pature.html

The forum and basilica excavation site. The unusual roofing was designed by the architect of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Its serious design can withstand a 2 tonnes snowfall

  • The Hôtel des Gaules: a reconstruction of Jacques-Gabriel Bulliot's house. Bulliot excavated here for over 35 years. He jokingly named it after the 'Altar of the Three Gauls' built by Augustus in Lugdunum (Lyon). Another ancient water source is located close by to this house.

    J-G.Buillot's house built in 1870 and restored in 2001

    Jacques-Gabriel Buillot (1817-1902)


    A spring next to Buillot's house (19th century stone work)


  • The Parc aux Chevaux: A Celtic structure lies beneath a vast Gallo-Roman villa (PC1) complex of 3,800 square metres. An aqueduct provided water to the villa from a nearby spring. Another smaller Gallo-Roman domus (PC2) is situated close by.



    Views of the Gallo-Roman villa at Parc aux Chevaux built in five stages with the last stage in the early 1st century AD. Its design included an atrium, peristyle garden, canalization for its water supply and public fountain



    Hypocaust heating reconstruction

  • La Fontaine St-Pierre, or St. Peter's fountain: One of 16 natural water sources at Bibracte and the most abundant. These water sources allowed a large population to live at Bibracte during pre-conquest Gaul. A 10 x 20.5 metres masonry basin was constructed by the Aeduans. Many bronze votive offerings were excavated in the fountain from Celtic and Gallo-Roman periods. The fountain's reputation for curative powers continued into the 19th century A.D as nursing mothers bathed in it to ensure a healthy milk supply.


  • La Chaume: a large open space or forum-like area used for a market area. During the Middle Ages it was used each year in May as a fair area.


Two shrines have been erected here to two heroes of Bibracte: J-G Buillot and President Francois Mitterand


  • Chapel St. Martin: the present chapel was built in 1873 upon the foundations of a Gallo-Roman temple. The cross near the chapel honours Saint Martin's visit to Bibracte in the 4th century A.D.


  • La Terrasse: no structures were built here so it is thought to have been a sacred space. Its high position on the hill, a grove of beech trees and a southern view to the Auvergne make this a special place to visit.


  • Le Theurot de la Roche: located to the west of the oppidum this terrace or plateau has several remains of Celtic and Gallo-Roman structures. Lausanne University from Switzerland was excavating a Gallo-Roman structure possibly a sanctuary. Below some its rectangular stone foundations they came across a round Celtic stone and wood foundation (the timber had rotted).

    Lausanne University students hard at work; the round Celtic foundations are evident here

    Pascal explains the Celtic building technique using timber beams placed in the ground

Another interesting site in the western terrace area near Le Theurot de la Roche is the Roche Salvée. This natural rock site's function is unknown.

A great view from the Roche Salvée

  • Pâture de la Côme Chaudron: a large number of metal workshops have been excavated along the main road as it leads from 'La Porte du Rebout' gateway up to the 'Pâture du Couvent'. Many fibulae and carbon deposits have been found since resuming work in 2000. Excavation of these workshops and residences first began in the late 19th century under Buillot. Professor Cauuet from Toulouse University has been excavating a Celtic mine just below the level of the road and workshops. Her enthusiastic university team of students and a metallurgist has discovered gold in the rock!

Hot, hard yakka on this 'Pâture de la Côme Chaudron' job

A reconstruction of a metal workshop found on Bibracte's oppidum (Bibracte Museum) and a model to show a possible layout of the workshop in the late 1st century BC

The European Archaeological Research Centre, Bibracte (Mont Beuvray and Glux-en-Glenne)

Apart from the obvious archaeological rule at Bibracte's Mont Beuvray oppidum, the European Research Centre also has a modern, world-class facility in the nearby small village of Glux-en-Glenne. The Research Centre's facilities are 'fantastique'. They include separate workshops for metal and ceramic work, a graphic design department, a 24/7 library research facility with special archaeological collections, a conference hall and classrooms for visiting school children including primary students. School children are invited to spend up to one week for free at Bibracte where they gain an appreciation of archaeology and their European/national heritage. The research centre also has delegated workrooms for visiting research teams from all over Europe, a large administrative area and an enormous underground archive 'depot' where the temperature is kept at the optimum conservation level. An extension to this storage area is currently under way.

A huge collection of finds are stored securely and meticulously by Giles at the Centre's headquarters, Glux-en-Glenne

The library at the Research Centre is lit largely by natural light

In another building complex in the village of Glux-en-Glenne there is located very comfortable accommodation for visiting researchers and students.

In the large cafeteria archaeologists dine alongside visiting primary students. French egalitarianism in practice! Bravo!

The cafeteria at Glux-en-Glenne caters for all with three meals a day

The European Archaeological Research Centre's headquarters (Glux-en-Glenne

Bibracte's museum at the foot of the oppidum plays a key educational rule. Again the museum is modern, well-lit and spacious. A multimedia approach is used to explain the important question of "Who were the Celts?" The museum's exhibits from Bibracte and other Celtic sites in Gaul revealed a general high level of craftsmanship, artistic achievement and functionality of items in pre-conquest Gaul.

This was evident from the quality of metal tools, weapons and personal items coupled with the quality of ceramics. Importantly, Bibracte's museum dispels the myth that the Celts of Gaul were 'barbarians'.

Bibracte Museum at the foot of the oppidum

My stay at Bibracte's Europrean Research Centre was a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity. I am so grateful to the staff of Bibracte for their hospitality, kindness and of course, tolerance towards my poor French language 'skills'. In particular, Vincent Guichard, Director extraordinaire of Bibracte, and Joëlle Cunnac, Bibracte's 'wonder woman' Research Assistant, were instrumental in making my study tour so enlightening and enjoyable."Merci! Merci beaucoup!"

| Back to Top | Share