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The fifth volume on the inventory of the cluzeaux in the Périgord - “Cluzeaux et souterrains du Périgord” by Serge Avrilleau, published by PLB – came out on Saturday October 15 in a remarkably fitting environment. The hamlet of La Petite Clavelie, on the estate belonging to Jean-François Ténès, boasts an underground refuge, typical of those truly amazing architectural structures that make holes in the ground rather than scraping the sky. A big crowd gathered in the fine barn that had been turned into an auditorium for the occasion. Three series of lectures by the particularly well-informed M.CL. (Master of Cluzeaux) were punctuated by visits to the cluzeau under study. Serge Avrilleau and Jean-François Ténès agreed to an interview to explain their fascination for these man-made subterranean places, shaped for reasons that still remain unexplained.


Cluzeaux are holes – in cliffs, at ground level or below ground level. Natural cavities, specially arranged or entirely man-made. The question is: in the latter case, who did the digging and why?
After discovering the subterranean world in the Gouffre de Padirac when he was a child, Serge Avrilleau, who was born in Saint-Astier, joined the famous G.S.A. (Groupe Speléologique Astérien) when he was a boy, alongside future great names in the fields of archaeology, prehistory and biology: Danilo Grébenart, Norbert Aujoulat and Claude Mouchès. He later became a solicitor, following in his father’s footsteps. But outside office hours he made a name for himself as an intuitive, untiring, methodical and rigorous speleologist.
Familiar with the natural - sometimes prehistoric - underground world, Serge Avrilleau explored the caves at Lascaux and La Mouthe with Abbé Glory. On discovering that some of the cavities had been entirely dug out by man (whole houses beneath the ground with corridors, rooms, staircases…) he was deeply impressed. This was in the 60s and he set himself a mission: to locate them, explore them, describe them and put down in writing all his finds.
So far he has listed 1,600 cluzeaux in the Périgord and, as mentioned earlier, has just brought out his fifth volume devoted to the Nontron district (PLB books). Already finished, the 6th volume devoted to the Périgueux district is to come out next year. Then there will be the 7th and final volume which will draw up a list of the cluzeaux in and around Sarlat.
As for the whys and the wherefores… even after so many years he is careful what he says; there are certain theories but they have yet to be confirmed.


1st Hypothesis: SPIRIT HOUSES

Are cluzeaux secret places for the survival of pagan rites, already identified long before Christianity? These beliefs and traditions continued clandestinely throughout the Middle Ages and surfaced with heretical movements. It should be noted that the persecuted Cathars had understood that cluzeaux were strategic hiding places and it was indeed the Inquisition that ordained their closure by a decree issued by Raymond VII, Comte de Toulouse, in 1233.
It must be realized that during this difficult transition period between the pagan and the sacred, when confronted with death people were split into three parts: there was the body that was buried and the soul, which the Church took charge of. There remained the spirit which the Church refuted. Some writers, such as Maurice Broëns, maintain that underground cluzeaux were quite possibly hypogea or “spirit houses”. It’s the Chtonic concept of the antechamber before departing for the world of spirits. An ascent anticipated in the midsummer heat, around August 15, which just happens to have become the well-known Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church.


With the discovery of cluzeaux equipped with devices manifestly designed for defence: barriers, shafts for keeping watch, loopholes for firing pikes and arrows, narrow openings and cleverly concealed dungeons, not forgetting the trenches for storing food and water, the other hypothesis suggests underground refuges built in secret by professional stone cutters - for refuge in times of conflict, providing they were kept stocked up with food and water. Who were they at war with? The Barbarians from our history books, the Alans, the Vandals, the Visigoths, in early Christian times, then the fearsome Normans, able to sail up the shallow rivers in their flat-bottomed boats? What enemies were they really expecting? We are left in the dark, to tell the truth. One thing is for sure: they had to have a good reason for shutting themselves away down there in the damp, in the dark, in cramped, inhospitable conditions.


As in a number of experiences that have already been carried out in caverns or in natural pit caves, to gain more knowledge on the subject Serge Avrilleau has devised a plan, an experiment: to get a family to live in a cluzeau for some time and see what happens. It’s an adventure he wants to start underground next year since, to his great regret, he has been denied permission to excavate owing to the fact that he is nonprofessional. They might not be digging into the ground but they will be probing deep into the human psyche. Any volunteers?

Sophie Cattoire
Translated into English by Valerie Saraben



Definition of cluzeaux:
Underground refuges, troglodyte dwellings at ground level or cliff cluzeaux, the appellation “cluzeaux” also covers the underground passages used for communication between different parts of a castle or for linking a castle to a nearby church, passageways for taking flight, galleries for escaping into the countryside or aqueducts, straight galleries for fetching water. But also special places for storing food in ice and dovecotes; some cluzeaux were even used by forgers and Resistance fighters. Their structures and their uses changed according to the social mores of the time, for technical reasons or in times of trouble.
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