The Animal Power Behind the Vallus at Malagne

– Capucine, a jenny without equal, at Malagne, the ArcheoPark of Rochefort (Belgium).

In the heart of the Rochefort countryside in the Province of Namur in Belgium, there is a little gem of nature and heritage interwoven: the site of the Malagne Gallo-Roman Villa, nestled in a green setting, where our visitors discover the remains and the reconstitutions of residential and agricultural buildings that illustrate rural life in our region in Antiquity.

In and around these buildings, farm animals live a peaceful life. Sheep, horses, cows, chickens, geese, peacocks… all contribute to an atmosphere of travel back in time. Among them, there is one animal that stands out both for its delightfulness and its special rôle in Malagne. It is our donkey.

  • Among the animals on the site, why is there a donkey in Malagne?

Jean-Luc Mulkens tells us that the donkey was the first equid to be domesticated by humans several millennia ago. It was used in the Roman period as a pack animal and for light agricultural work. Originally an inhabitant of the areas around the Mediterranean, it was taken by the Romans as far as Great Britain, above all to provide mules (the cross between a jack, a male donkey, and a mare). A mule combines the robustness of a donkey and the strength of a horse, is a good pack and even heavy draft animal. It is a mule that is represented on the bas-relief of Buzenol-Montauban (now in the Musée Gaumais, Virton, Belgique) portrayed in harvesting with a vallus, the Gallo-Roman harvesting implement. Within the framework of a large-scale and long-lasting research project, Malagne adopted this astonishing machine, so having a donkey on-site is highly important in gathering scientific data during the harvesting experiments, as well as showing our work to the public during our event days.

First trials with the vallus, tracted by our donkey, Marius, guided by Nathalie Bozet, the archaeologist heading up the project in July 2001
  • How did Marius come to live at Malagne?

Christian Limbrée remembers when Marius first arrived in Malagne, well before the experiments with the vallus! He was either a Pyrenees or a Normandy breed, and had a handsome, light cross from his withers down to his hind quarters, called a Saint Andrew’s cross.

‘’We loved this relationship between humans and our quadruped. It was a real delight to be on this ancient land in touch with the animal and nature, with the commendable goal of making a bit of progress in scientific research! Furthermore, Marius was also the public’s absolute favorite: a real ham – but who knows what goes on in a donkey’s head? – he outright sought out people’s cameras and movie cameras, trying to show off his ‘’star’’ profile….

Everybody knows it can sometimes be a real chore to fetch a horse or a donkey that is out in the pasture grazing. How did the Gallo-Romans do it for harvesting? At Malagne, to get Marius to come at a gallop across the pasture – braying like a foghorn all the way – it sufficed to show him…. some mint candy! Which goes to show you that archaeological experimentation, however serious it is supposed to be, sometimes depends on knowing the ropes, some tricks, and a bit of craftiness.’’

  • What are the particularities of tracting the vallus?

The vallus, also known as the Trevires harvesting implement is a local invention that can be fairly confusing – it is made up of a bin with teeth or tines in front, used to harvest the ears of spelt (a species of wheat, Triticum spelta). The animal is harnessed behind the bin between two cart shafts by means of a small single yoke called a jouguet. Steered by a guide from behind, and thanks to the reins connecting the single yoke to the shafts, the animal carries out a push-pull movement (see the studies of Professor Georges Raepsaet of the Free University of Brussels). As the Roman author Palladius mentions, the implement is quite effective and, in a few passages over the field, is able to harvest the entire surface crop.

[Editor’s Note: Prof. Raepsaet has published many articles and books on this subject, see especially the most recent, comprehensive work La moissonneuse gallo-romaine au fil de l’histoire, Brussels, Etudes d’Archéologie 19, CreA-Patrimoine, 2022.]

Harvesting spelt with Capucine, with Jean-Luc Mulkens and Benoit Libioulle.
  • After Marius’s death, we had to replace our draft animal. How did we choose Capucine?
Young Capucine takes her first steps in Malagne beside Françoise Fontaine

Benoît Libioulle tells the tale: ‘’As soon as I saw Capucine, I fell in love with her. She came from an especially caring breeder. As soon as we put the halter and lead on her, she followed me right away, even though she didn’t know me. Her stall had been not far from a railway line, so she was already used to noise, a real advantage, because we use tractors on the site.’’

Françoise Fontaine goes on with the story: ‘’Once we got over the shock of losing Marius, the question of how to replace him came up. Finding a donkey is one thing, but making it a consenting partner for archaeological experimentation is another! Luck smiled on us. When we first saw Capucine with Benoit, she was only a few months old. She was living with her mother in a small herd and already had happy contacts with people. We were reticent about choosing a young animal with no experience and it meant we would have to be up to the task of training her for several years. We also had to set aside our research work until she was weaned and had grown enough to be able to work, but we took up the challenge. Capucine came to Malagne in the spring of 2014 at the age of one year old, still a baby! Today, ten years later, we are proud of our beautiful adult jenny, a happy donkey (Ed. Note: the French expression is bien dans ses sabots, ‘’happy in her hooves’’), champion of the vallus and the uncontested star of Malagne.’’

Working with an animal partner in a scientific experiment is an enthralling adventure that is both demanding and makes you feel modest, as the factors involved in making it all work are so numerous and often unexpected, while the results are not always what you hoped for. But, the emotional attachment is always there!

  • Capucine, stubborn as a mule?
Winter walk for Capucine with Jean-François

‘’Capucine is fantastic’’, Jean-François Dejasse explains. ‘’She’s a sociable, very willing jenny that was well trained from the beginning, and knows her right from her left. Like any donkey, she requires a lot of attention and you have to carry on a dialogue with her. She thinks right – more than a horse would – and she remembers, if she has been hurt by anything or anyone.’’

You have certainly got the picture by now – the relationship between our donkey and her humans goes far beyond the framework of scientific research. It is what makes our work so valuable – creating real ties with such a dear partner, yesterday with Marius, that we remember with affection when we talk about the past, and today with Capucine.

Testimony gathered by Florence Garit (scientific collaborator), with help from the Malagne team: Jean-Luc Mulkens (agricultural engineer), Benoît Libioulle, Jean-François Dejasse (caretakers), Françoise Fontaine (Director) and Christian Limbrée (Emeritus Director).

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