The Secret Vault 

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The Vault of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille

Philip Coppens


A surgeon ventured along the river Aude at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to make careful observations. Professor Philippe-Henri Lonet arrived from the Bordeaux region. He came because he devoted his leisure time to the photography of historical subjects and various curiosities. He also tried to uncover the extent of the underground complex in that particular area. Working thoroughly and methodically, he drew up a detailed plan of the entire system. With the assistance of a friend, an architect, he made further discoveries, which supplemented those made earlier by his predecessors. His main focus was on the right bank of the river, where he noticed that older stones had been used in the construction of newer buildings. Furthermore, he felt that stones in the lower walls presented elements of a geometric shape that would date them to the Middle Ages. Fortunately, Lonet took an entire series of photographs, which he treasured. He also found various wells within the area. However, they were all blocked up around 1897, the very year the administrative files of the underground complex of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille disappeared from the civilian administrative records.

At the beginning of the 20th century, “Electricité de France” installed a transformer at the bottom of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille. And this is where the story leaves the pages of history and can be verified on site.

When Jos Bertaulet was peering over the river Aude, to find out whether or not there was anything important or enigmatic to be seen, the only thing he saw were the remains of the disused building that once housed the transformer. He walked down the Sacred Path and instead of crossing the bridge, made a right hand turn, following the river, in the direction of the building. Once there, the tower greets you, but you make your way past it, along the left-hand side. Today, two metal plates rest on the ground. In 2001, there was still duct tape, left behind by the rescue operation that the police had mounted here to “rescue” Keith Prince – an event, which had happened in 1995. But it was 1990 when Bertaulet made the discovery: that underneath all the grass – no metal plates back then – were two openings. One, he would eventually learn, was a straight drop into an underground cavity – a man-made vault. Although many people believe Keith Prince fell through this opening, thus injuring himself, it is not true. Both Keith and Clive Prince had discovered the “proper entrance”, a bit further on, in front. There, a V-shaped series of steps descends into a low passageway, running just underneath the surface. The walls are rough, but the ceiling is smooth: nice, smooth marble slabs. After approximately five metres, there is a sheer drop. Once again, it was not here that the accident befell Keith Prince. Using a rope, you can then descend into the man-made cavern. When you look upwards, you will see the opening forming the sheer drop; if open, it would act as a skylight, but more likely, it is the access through which whatever was deposited here, was lowered. It was here, in the rubble left behind after Jos Bertaulet and friend had cleared it all away, that Keith Prince twisted his ankle and thought he might have broken his leg. After some time, Clive Prince decided to run for help – finding it from the Lazarist priests next to the church – who claimed total ignorance of the existence of the underground structure. They sent for the police, an ambulance and the cave rescue team – one or all of which then informed the local newspaper. What eventually transpired, was that Keith Prince’s injuries were minimal (a strained calf muscle) but that the cat was now definitely out of the bag: the local newspaper had reported on the discovery.
It followed a series of publications on the subject. 1991 saw the publication of Jos Bertaulet’s book, only available in Dutch, but which inspired a writer to incorporate the find into a children’s novel. Philip Coppens worked for this publisher in 1993 and was introduced to the subject, with the specific request to see whether there might be any foreign interest in this book. Although in the end, there was none in the book in its present state, there was interest in the discovery itself. Writing in a small publication on the subject in 1994, Clive Prince made contact with Philip Coppens in 1995, resulting in a meeting in July of that year – barely a few weeks after he and his brother had been responsible for the publicity, and only a few weeks before Jos Bertaulet’s death. The episode was then written down in their book, The Templar Revelation. In the following years, further research was carried out, both by Philip Coppens in trying to establish the framework of Bertaulet’s discovery, and from early 1997 onwards by André Douzet, on everything else, adding to or substantiating observations made by Bertaulet a decade earlier.
By 1995, Jos Bertaulet had sold 500 copies of his book from a total print run of 1,000. Yet, in that year, during Philip Coppens’ first visit to the site, with Jos Bertaulet, it seemed like divine providence that they should come cross a young couple standing in front of the porch of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, with his book in their hands. During that four-year period, there had also been an attempt to make a television documentary on the site. Raw footage was filmed just days before tremendous floods hit the Aude region. They transformed the access route to the complex, washed away the bridge (now restored again) and, coincidentally, also washed away most of Rennes-les-Bains cemetery.
So what had Bertaulet discovered? A low-level passageway, just under the surface led to the first vault. Descent from the tunnel to the vault is best made by rope, but can be done without such aide if you are an experienced climber. Opposite the entrance, in the right-hand bottom corner, is a small opening to a second room – there is also an opening at the very top of that wall. Originally, the entrance was often wet and sometimes hazardous to get through. Few people have entered the tunnel, even fewer have descended into the first vault – only a handful of people have entered the second vault, but these do not include Jos Bertaulet. The only feature in the second vault is a small opening in the wall, which seems to be an inlet and/or outlet for water, so that the complex could be flooded.

It is clear that the tunnel is a later addition. Probably, the skylight opening was deemed to be too dangerous and impractical – or too visible. The area around the tunnel opening indicates that a house was built over it. Literally inches from its front door, is the opening descending to the tunnel, leading to the vault, which itself sits in front of the building – i.e. anyone entering the building has already passed by the skylight opening. Equally obvious is that whoever built the structure on top knew of the existence of the tunnel – or might even have created it. Nevertheless, the structure shielding the tunnel entrance does not seem to be part of the transformer building. It seems to have been levelled when construction for the transformer building began. Only the lowest courses of masonry survive; they appear to have been built during the 19th century, they are impossible to date precisely.
That the tunnel is another addition is made clear at its end, where the connection with the masonry of vault reveals it was not part of the original design; the opening of the tunnel is also offset from the centre of the vault.
The two vault themselves are made with exceptionally solid material. They are in a style, which does not indicate whether they are medieval or from more ancient times. Bertaulet did send photographs of the location to a professor in Belgium, who replied that, based on his analysis of the photographs, the masonry could date from Roman times, and that the entire structure could have been a Roman vault, used to hoard treasure or some other material. More recently, some researchers have argued for a medieval dating of the structure, but, it seems, the only evidence they use is the disbelief that it would be that old, although why this should be so is not mentioned. Others, including the local school principal, have argued that it might be Visigothic.
But it is now equally clear to every visitor that when the transformer on top of this structure was built, the engineers knew of its existence. Evidence for this is the electric wiring, which runs along and throughout the structure, in an attempt to “earth” the transformer building on top: conclusive evidence – proof – that in the early 20th century, the construction was known. But, it has to be said, that although it was known, once again it was quickly removed from the public eye. After all, would anyone dare to enter a vault where massive electric wires are inches away from your body? Some will say yes, but most will say no.
Bertaulet observed that from the transformer, electronic pylons ran up the hill, over a distance of approximately 130 metres, towards the church. Construction of the transformer and pylons occurred around 1923-4 and they were operational until 1946, when the electricity distribution was nationalised into E.D.F, Electricité du France. It is clear, therefore, that by 1923, whatever was present in the vault had to be removed. To some extent, anything that was present in the underground complex had to be removed – if anything was still present. 1923 postdated the death of Saunière, who had died in 1917.
So an electric transformer sits on top of what one professor tentatively identified as a Roman vault. The professor – and observations on site – have shown that the entire vault could be flooded. Previously, we listed the observations as to how the underground complex was apparently able to be flooded if the Aude rose high above its normal level. But according to Bertaulet, talking to the locals around 1990, the route of the river next to the vault had been vastly different until a few years earlier. Before the river was dredged, a small, man-made island stood in the middle of the river. Apparently, the water could be regulated, using a basic, but effective system, resulting in a choice as to whether or not the vaults were to be flooded. Of course, the question is whether this was merely able to flood these vaults – or whether the entire underground network could be flooded – for, as we shall see later, there is every indication that the complex is larger than just these two vaults.
This observation has led to the possibility that the two vaults might be a water tank. In some interpretations this is to store water during droughts, in others to flood “something”, though what and how is never explained.
When the vault made headlines in the local newspapers, some local amateur archaeologists became interested in it. Philip Coppens in particular had some hopes that they might uncover the history and purpose behind the construction, but it was soon made clear that this would not be the case. In the end, they concluded that the entire infrastructure had been created to help in the pumping of water from the Aude up the hill to Notre-Dame-de-Marceille. The reservoir would thus act as a “pump”, to somehow provide enough force so that water would be pushed up the hill in the pipe. Possible in theory, but in practice, questionable.

Note that a maximum height of seven metres of water could be created within the vault. The top of the vault is approximately fifty metres below the top of the hill, to where water would be pumped. Therefore, the static thrust of seven metres of standing water (maximum) would have to move water up the hill, about 60 metres higher (the opening was obviously required to be at the bottom of the vault, to use the “weight of the water”). Although an electrical or even a manual pump might achieve this, it is clear that the vault itself would never produce enough static thrust for this task. Knowing this was a silly suggestion, in some circles the conclusions have been re-interpreted to make the vault modern, specifically built as a pump at the time of the electric transformer, to enable water to be raised from the river to Notre-Dame-de-Marceille by means of this pump. Very logical, but completely at odds with the evidence. There is so much wrong with this latter interpretation that on-site inspection of the structure is the best evidence against it. However, let us argue it in some detail.
For one, it would result in massive amounts of electric wiring running through a vault filled with water, which would then be pumped up via an electric engine to the top of the hill. I believe that electricity still carries a current… So unless that law of physics does not apply in Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, the entire installation would blow itself to smithereens in a matter of seconds – electrocuting everyone in the vicinity. And there is no evidence of any such explosions, in case someone would wish to argue that conclusion.
Still, we should not be too harsh. It is known that there was a pump here, placed at the time when the transformer was installed, and that this pump did indeed push water up the hill. But that pump is not the two vaults. The two vaults had a different origin, and a different purpose.

Theophilus Lasserre, priest and friend of Boudet, in his work on Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, specifies: “an underground tank built at the bottom of the hill of Marceille receives water from the river that is naturally filtered. On the higher gallery, the suction pipe exists, activated by a small machine of four horse power, bringing water to the externally built water-tank between two buttresses of the church.” Lasserre describes formally what he sees: “a gallery above ground” from which a pipe runs, driven by a “small machine”. It might seem as if he is taking about the underground vaults, but this is not so. His pump is above ground. Furthermore, Lasserre does not describe the extravaganza of the two vaults – something he would definitely have done, when you note how detailed all his other observations are. Therefore, it is clear that something else was located nearby, and that this was indeed a water-pump. But – guess what – there is no evidence to be found for its existence. No documents, drawings, etc. No wonder it was a miraculous fountain for these Lazarists: they had water, but it seems it was coming from nowhere. But it is clear that by the late 19th century, the pretence could not be maintained. Lasserre noted the existence of a pipe, running up the hill – but where exactly or how, is not known.
The EDF transformer was activated around 1927, though little is known of its function. It is known to have fed a pumping station (no doubt the second incarnation of the four horse powered system that was in use), but surely it must have done more than just that? The electrical installation is now gone, but the building itself remains. Although it is now derelict, it was only abandoned, it was never destroyed. This is possibly the only non-mysterious aspect of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille! But at the same time, it is clear that the structure masked the underground vault successfully, for between 1927 and 1990, no-one seems to have been aware of the underground vault – or had access to it.
A clear pattern emerges. Originally, there was the underground vault, accessible via the skylight. At some point, a tunnel was built that allowed for easier access – and specifically secret access. A house or shed was built near the vault, with steps leading through a tunnel, into the tunnel. Later, in 1927, the house was destroyed, to make way for the transformer building. During its construction, the underground vault was wired in order to earth the structure, guaranteeing that no-one will gain access to it or use it. Some decades later, Notre-Dame-de-Marceille received its electrical supply via an new route, and the transformer fell into disuse.
But that is not all. During the building works for the transformer, it is clear that the workmen were aware of both the tunnel and the vault. When entering the passageway, it turns left. But when we look on the right, there is clear evidence of a start of another tunnel, going right. However, less than a metre inside, a huge block of steel-enforced cement has been sunk in, anchored from the surface. In short, this block of cement cuts off what seems to be another tunnel, going right. It suggests that the block of cement purposely blocked off this part of the complex… and it suggests that behind that wall, lies the rest of the underground complex.
Several researchers on site have made that observation, sometimes independent of each other. The very first people who saw the vault noted it, but as the two vaults were then the major discovery, they often forgot to mention the possibility of this “blocked off tunnel” veering to the right. Again, the best indication of its presence is an on-site inspection.
Where does this leave us? Bertaulet’s discovery proved that there is substance to all the rumours. Bertaulet formed a nexus between two periods. Since 1991, people have tried to find further historical evidence for Bertaulet’s discovery, which was then largely absent. As we have uncovered, this absence of evidence was intentional: the authorities have been very careful to make sure that there was no evidence available, at least until the 19th century, and most likely until the early part of the 20th century. But in the centuries before Bertaulet, it is clear that similar finds, if not the underground vaults themselves, had been uncovered occasionally, and that at all times, the Church made sure that these discoveries were carefully obscured. Why?