Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Little Pompeii’ Unearthed in France is Most Exceptional Roman Site Found in Half a Century

Ancient Origins

In an extensive excavation of a complete Roman neighborhood found near the outskirts of the city of Vienne in the south-east of France, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of affluent houses and public buildings, including extravagant and beautiful mosaics. The huge site, which dates back to the 1st century AD, is exceptionally well preserved and has been described by Benjamin Clement, the lead archaeologist at the dig as, ‘undoubtedly the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years’ reports The Guardian.

 The Pompeii Comparison
Vienne is situated on the Rhône River near Lyon, and is already well-known for its Roman history due to a Roman theater and temple in the city. The current excavations in the Sainte-Colombe area began in April and are opening up a huge Roman landscape of 7000 square meters (75,000 sq ft). The site is remarkable not only due to its size but both the diversity of finds and the excellent condition they have been found in. Despite the perhaps merciful lack of petrified corpses, there are similarities to the equally well preserved site in Pompeii, as the neighborhood was abandoned due to fires after 300 years of habitation. Although devastating to the citizens there, the fires will have aided its preservation.

One of the French archaeological team cleaning household artifacts at the site at Sainte-Colombe in Vienne, France (Credit: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)

As Mr Clement commented according to the Telegraph, “It was the succession of fires that ended up helping to preserve the buildings and artifacts, although of course they drove the inhabitants out.” Although the devastation was not on the same scale or so rapid at that of Pompeii, the situation and site have similarities in that people deserted the place quickly leaving some of their belongings which were then preserved by ash from the fires. This is providing rich pickings for the archaeologists and hence justifying the moniker Clement attributes to the site of ‘a real little Pompeii in Vienne.’

Huge Area of Well Preserved Roman History
After around a century of contention with the Gallic inhabitants, the ancient city came under full rule of the Roman empire in about 47 BC under Julius Caesar and began to prosper. This neighborhood was diverse but has evidence of a great deal of wealth and included luxury homes, public buildings and communal spaces. One building believed to be the residence of a merchant has been dubbed by the team as ‘The House of Bacchanalia’ due to its floor mosaic scene of maenads (female followers of Bacchus, Roman god of wine) and satyrs. This building had marble tiling, its own water supply system and large gardens and despite being collapsed by the fire, the team believes it will be able to completely restore it, reports the Telegraph.

The site is extensive and covers a whole neighborhood. Image: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP

 Another interesting mosaic that is undergoing restoration in another abode is of Thalia, the patron of comedy, with a bare derrière and being abducted by Pan the god of the satyrs. According to the Guardian report, the team plans to painstakingly remove the mosaics and reassemble them so that they will be available for everyone to enjoy at Vienne’s museum of Gallo-Roman civilization by 2019.

 As well as mosaics and household items, a large building with a fountain decorated by a statue of Hercules was uncovered which had been constructed on the site of a former market.

The Vienne of Rome

The Temple of Auguste and Livie lit up at night, Vienne, France (CC BY 3.0)

The position Vienne held on the mighty Rhône river was part of the major transport route that connected Lyon, the soon to be capital of Gaul to the north, with Gallia Narbonensis, a Roman settlement in the south. The colonized city made all its inhabitants citizens of Rome and it prospered under successive Caesars, evidence of which exists until this day. Perhaps the most impressive of this evidence is the Temple of Auguste and Livie, which is remarkably well preserved having later been used as a church. There also still exists a theater, the ‘Garden of Cybele’ (Cybele being known by the Romans as Magna Mater or Great Mother) and a pyramid shaped monument that was part of the Roman ‘circus’ or hippodrome

‘Pyramide de Vienne’ Roman era monument (CC BY 3.0)

The position of Vienne in the empire was not accepted by all and there were calls for its destruction by the people of nearby rival town, Lyon. The city lived on despite these troubles, however it suffered due to competing claim of Lyon to be the leading city in the area and by the 3rd century it had declined drastically as Lyon took the lead role in the region. A new city wall was built that was less than a third of the length of the existing 7-kilometer (4.35 miles) wall.

Modern Revelations
Being on the edges of modern Vienne and dated in the first three centuries AD, the current excavation is revealing further the story of a period when the city was at its ancient height of prosperity. It will add a depth of knowledge concerning the daily life and society at the time when the famous monuments - which have been known an admired in the city for two millennia - were erected.

The archaeological site of the Garden of Cybele, Vienne (CC BY SA 3.0)

The excavation of the Sainte-Colombe site will be ongoing until December.

Top image: A well-preserved mosaic on the archaeological site of Sainte-Colombe, Vienne. (Image: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)

By Gary Manners

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