TROGLODYTE: One of any savage race that dwells in caves; a cave dweller

The troglodyte site of Barry was continuously occupied for thousands of years. Located in the département of Vaucluse in southern France, it was built around a dozen or so limestone caves in a west-facing Alpine foothill in the valley of the Rhône River.

The Vaucluse is part of the Comtat de Vennaissin, the original territory of France. The principal city in Vaucluse, the "county seat" if you wish, is Avignon, 40 kilometers to the south on a bend in the Rhône. Both Barry and Avignon, belonging to the Neolithic period, were first inhabited roughly 3,000 years before Christ as cliff-dwellings in the limestone formations bordering the river valley, sheer cliffs carved by the Rhône that were already ancient when prehistoric man first left his mark on them.

Polished stone axes have been found at Barry, as well as knives from an earlier Paleolithic period. Artifacts aside, the caves are the enduring link with the first evidence of human habitation in the valley. The caves are dug out of soft sedimentary rock known as molasse or grès tender, more sand than quartz, and easily workable with a pickaxe or a simple adze.

Once the caves were established, later generations refined them with lofts built by carving sockets into the walls to support timbers forming the loft floor. Other common embellishments were niches in the walls to serve as the resting place for a candle or an oil lamp. It was also the practice to hollow out an especially soft vertical vein of rock to form a chimney for a crude fireplace built into a corner of the cave.

These troglodyte settlements flourished along the Rhône, mainly on the east bank. In some of the more favorable locations, such as Avignon, the original inhabitants were overcome by the Cavares who built oppida there. In the case of Avignon, this first real city was later conquered by the Romans.

This did not happen at Barry, built on the south-southeast slope of a cliff at an elevation of 314 meters above the river valley. The caves, with modifications, were lived in until as late as the early 1900's. At that time Barry was occupied by the families of stonecutters who worked in a quarry half a day's walk away. The men spent the week on the job site, returning to Barry for the weekend.

The last inhabitants left in 1924 when influenza decimated their ranks; they moved three miles down the mountain to the hamlet of St. Pierre de Sénos, where many of their descendents can be found today. St Pierre was a Roman relay station on the Agrippa route; "Sénos" is derived from the Roman name, Sénomagus.

In recent years a volunteer organization has been formed to rescue the Barry dwellings from the wilderness. A small 17th century chapel has emerged from the undergrowth, the terraced gardens are evident once more, and the site is a popular Sunday visit for people living in the valley.

Half a kilometer west of Barry are the remains of a protohistoric Greco-Roman dwelling area . Nothing much is left of this oppidium except for the trace of dwelling foundations. It has been authenticated with coins and pottery shards found there and is believed to be the town of Aéria, which the Greek geographer Strabon described in the year 18 A.D.

Other cultures shared the site with the Barry inhabitants as well. On the plateau of the mountain top a few hundred feet above the caves are the remnants of a fortress castle, established in the 10th century as one of the guard posts of the fiefdom. Fortresses such as this were common along the Rhône, spaced a day's march apart. It would have had its own village established near its walls.

Both the castle and the caves are called Barry (or Barri). The first record of the name, Barros, is Celtic and means “a rocky ridge”. The cave settlement was there first, but the name comes from the fiefdom of Barry which, joined with three others (Bauzon, Chabrières and the religious house of Saint Bénédictine) formed the governing body of the region during the Feudal period.

Of the Chateau de Barry, nothing remains but a few head-high sections of foundation walls. The fortress and its attendant village were destroyed in the 13th century. The population of Barry remained.

The people of Barry always kept themselves apart from the population living in the valley. They became agricultural, building terraced gardens on the west-facing slope just below the caves. On the northwest side of the cliff is a flat area known locally as "“The Meadow". Enclosed with dry stone walls, the settlement’s flock of sheep was kept here.

As the centuries progressed, the caves became insufficient for the population. Walls and roofs were built outward from the original caves. A few free-standing homes were erected of stone. A chapel was built. In the 18th century the population of Barry was at an impressive high of 500 people.

The population began to decline at this point. The only approach to Barry was by foot or horseback. At the end of the 19th century some of the inhabitants were killed by cave-ins of the oldest dwellings. Shortly after this the population was down to only 50 people. When influenza took its toll, the remaining inhabitants retreated downhill to Saint Pierre de Sénos.

I once knew a woman who knew someone who had lived in Barry. When I was living in France I sometimes hiked with a group of retired people living in St. Pierre. One of these women, Madame Barruol, mentioned that she had known an old woman who "lived in the caves" until she was in her mid-teens and that she knew which dwelling had been the home of the old woman. I begged Mme. Barruol to show me the cave. Finally, on one of our outings, six of us climbed up to Barry.

It was a day in early Spring. An almond tree at the edge of the clearing was in flower, blooming far ahead of the fruit trees in the valley below. I saw the cave where the old woman had lived, the wood door and shutters long gone from the door and window openings built outward from the original cavern. The window sill of one was a large piece of stone with shallow basin and a groove carved in it. It was explained that this sill served as a kitchen sink and the groove allowed water to drain to the exterior.

My friends also showed me another structure, built perhaps as recently as the mid-1800s, which was a bit apart from the other dwellings and had a view over the valley. Legend has it that this had been a tavern and, on hot summer evenings, people of Saint Pierre would ascend to the tavern to spend a few hours in the coolness of its terrace.

After the population deserted Barry for Saint Pierre, there was one addition to its residents. An agriculturist had a flock of sheep on The Meadow, guarded by a resident sheepherder and his wife. The wife was pregnant and, when her baby was due, a midwife was sent for. This midwife rode her bicycle as far as Saint Pierre and then climbed the rest of the way on foot. She arrived in time to deliver the child. The year was 1925 and that was the last record of human life in the caves of Barry.

Midway between the caves and the castle, just at the edge of the old burial grounds where a community television antenna is now erected, is the footprint of a watchtower, built when the fortress was being used. Towers such as this, known as "Saracen Towers", were built clinging to the very edge of the cliff, commanding an eagle's eye view of the valley. The purpose was to watch for the approach of Saracen invaders.

The view is impressive, even without the added height of a tower. Today, although the villages in the valley remain small and peaceful, the valley corridor itself is industrialized. The first atomic energy plant in France, Tricastin, is located directly across the valley from Barry. The Rhône is just a trickle at this point, its waters having been diverted into the Donzère-Mondragon canal in the 1940s. There is a flour mill on the Canal, and constant barge traffic. The multi-lane A-7 autoroute has replaced the Roman road, and the TGV has its high-speed track parallel to the regular railroad lines.

In the early evening hours when darkness descends on the valley below, the last rays of the setting sun still illuminate the cliffs of Barry. It is possible to stand quietly in the sunlight on the lip of the valley, looking down at the streams of automobile headlights defining the autoroute, the spotlights illuminating the tall towers of Tricastan, and the streetlights shining in today's village just below the cliff. There is no electricity in Barry, nobody has lived there for a long, long time, but several thousand years of continuous habitation form an almost palpable presence.

Local knowledge and legends

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