Katherine M. Erdman has recently completed her doctorate at the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota.
The Source of the Douix, a freshwater spring situated within the town of Châtillon-sur-Seine, has been visited by local inhabitants for the past 2,500 years. While there is a strong tradition of spring veneration in eastern France during the Gallo-Roman period (c. 50 B.C. – A.D. 450) and medieval era (5th to 15th centuries), few sites have evidence for ritual activity during the Iron Age (c. 800 – 50 B.C.). There are no inscriptions or texts describing what entity was venerated at the Douix, nor are there human-made structures, such as basins or temples, associated with the spring which erupts from the base of a limestone cliff; the site is primarily known through the offerings that were deposited directly into the mouth of the spring. This assemblage illustrates how objects and ritual practices change over time, and how humans use objects to connect and communicate with the divine realm.
Over the course of the Iron Age, visitors to the spring deposited several hundred iron or bronze fibulae (brooches), a variety of ceramic vessels which may have been intentionally broken before being tossed into the spring, a few ceramic beads, and several late Iron Age coins. Though some nearby springs have evidence for earlier offerings, such as Neolithic axes at Bourbonne-les-Bains, few have evidence for Iron Age ritual activities making the Douix collection exceptional.
In the Gallo-Roman period the types of offerings changed. Thirty-six limestone sculptures of legs, feet, and heads, busts, or torsos of women and men were retrieved; an additional 40 unidentifiable fragments were also found. There were over 100 bronze or iron simple finger rings, as well as other forms of personal ornamentation including bronze bracelets and glass beads. Coins, which date from c. 27 B.C. to the fourth century A.D., were another significant category of offering during this time. Representations in a variety of media, coins, and personal ornamentation are the most common categories of offerings found at sanctuaries within 100 km of the Douix demonstrating a rich and established ritual tradition and understanding of the divine.
From the material evidence it would appear that ritual activity ceased for several hundred years after Christianity became the dominant religion in the area. However, despite the lack of offerings recovered from the spring at this time, other lines of evidence propose activity at the Douix was not abandoned completely. In the 11th century, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Christ was placed in a niche carved into the cliff above the erupting spring, suggesting people were coming to the site to pray or perhaps leave perishable offerings. Additionally, a folkloric tale whose origin is impossible to date, describes a tradition of people visiting the Douix after Candlemas to offer cakes and bread to a spirit who inhabited the cave, and whose footsteps could be heard on the water as it retrieved the offerings. So while materially the Douix appears to have been abandoned, other evidence illustrates people were still actively visiting the spring.
A new offering tradition developed in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and was associated with young women and marriage. According to local oral history, the year a girl reached marrying age she visited the Douix to deposit a straight pin in hopes that she may find a suitor that year. Such a practice must have been rather popular as nearly 500 such bronze pins were found. More recently in the past hundred years there is good evidence that people have continued to deposit a variety of objects into the spring, such as coins from France, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, and the United States, glass vessels, clothing fasteners, and other miscellaneous items.
The Source of the Douix has been a ritual focal point for over two thousand years. The offerings given by local inhabitants have changed as the result of wider social, cultural, and religious transformations. Within each period an object had a particular meaning, and was selected as an offering because it could convey a particular message to unseen entities (deities, ancestors, natural forces). In addition to the intended message carried an offering, these materialized prayers gave participants an opportunity to communicate with the divine in a very direct and personal way.
Katherine M. Erdman
For more information, please see:
Erdman, Katherine M. 2014 Votives and Value: Communicating with the Supernatural. In Embodying Value: The Transformation of Objects in and from the Ancient World, edited by Clare Rowan and Annabel Bokern. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, pp. 89-100.
Erdman, Katherine M. 2014 Engaging the Intranatural at the Source of the Douix (Côte-d’Or, France): Objects, Communication, and Ritual in a Fluid Environment. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Minneapolis. [available December 2014].
The assemblage from the Source of the Douix is on display at the Musée du Pays Châtillonnais (http://www.musee-vix.fr/fr), a short ten minute walk from the Douix in Châtillon-sur-Seine.