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17.11.03

Site of Early Christian Basilica Discovered in France

This news has not really played in the United States (or in the blogosphere) as far as I can tell, so I think I need to draw some attention to it here. Workers digging under the city of Arles on the site of a future Media Institute have discovered the old foundations of what may be one of the the first cathedrals in Gaul, built probably in the 4th century and in use until the 6th century. I learned about this first from Le Nouvel Observateur in the article Une cathédrale gauloise découverte à Arles from November 13, which I translate here:Mosaic from excavation in Arles

A fourth-century cathedral, one of the first built in Gaul, was discovered on the construction site of the future media center (Institute of Media) in Arles. "In historical terms, it's important," noted Frédéric Raynaud, of the National Institute of Preventive Archeological Research (INRAP). "We have an extremely well-preserved early Christian church, with remnants visible at the choir level." This researcher underscores the value of mosaics "so fragile that we are going to have restorers come. The floor is decorated with white and gray marble arranged in staggered rows," he explained to Associated Press. According to archeologist Emilie Leal, "All the work is yet to be done. We have not understood at all the true function of this basilica. We cannot speak of an autonomous building: it is a complex."

"In the early Christian era, each Roman city had a corresponding diocese and bishop," explains Jean-Maurice Rouquette, Honorary Chief Curator of the Museums of Arles. "The bishop is the center of all, he baptizes and distributes the sacraments." According to him, this system ended in the 6th century when the Bishop of Arles, Saint Caesarius, "seeing that he could no longer control his diocese, had the idea to confer his powers on the priests of secondary parishes."

The municipal government of Arles has not given up on erecting the media center, whose construction is estimated at a value of 5 million euros. "We have on one side an economic development project and on the other we find ourselves faced with an exceptional discovery: we want to find a compromise in which we take account of both," declared Bouzid Sabeg, Director of the Patrimony of the City of Arles.
In the same issue, Olivier Frégaville-Arcas published an article (Découverte d'une cathédrale du IVe siècle à Arles), from which I translate the following additional information:
During work preparing for the construction of a multimedia center in downtown Arles on the site of a former convent, workers were surprised to discover gallic ruins. A team from INRAP was sent to the site to make an evaluation of the discovery: either to authorize the construction and dispense with the archeological claim or launch a scientific excavation. Archeologists have uncovered, among other things, collapsed columns and very beautiful but extremely fragile mosaics. They have therefore called on restorers to preserve them in the best possible state. . . .

The apse, which measures more than 15 meters in diameter, suggests that this religious building is a cathedral. According to Marc Heijmans, archeologist at the CNRS, these would be the remains of the absolute first cathedral in the Arles area, perhaps even in all of Gaul. In effect, Arles became an ecclesiastical city at the beginning of the fourth century. The researchers hope to have the time to decode what is hidden behind the complexity of this building. After all the municipal government of Arles has not yet shelved its multimedia center project . . . INRAP therefore must preserve this exceptional discovery while at the same time permitting the city's economic development. In the wait for a compromise, the excavations continue.
An article in La Croix broke the story on November 10, which rated the importance of the discovery in the following terms:
This cathedral is the first constructed in France, around 350, according to researchers. The two other known cathedrals dating from the same period are those of Trier (Germany), administrative capital of the Gauls, and of Geneva (Switzerland). The cathedral, 40 to 50 meters in length, has an apse about 15 meters in diameter, "which is exceptional for the period," indicated Jean Guyon, specialist in late antiquities at the CNRS in Aix-en-Provence.
Last Friday (see this article in Le Nouvel Observateur), the French government stepped in, in the person of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Minister of Culture, who gave the site temporary status as a national historic monument. This means that no more construction can happen on the site for a period of one year, while the archeologists do their work. (I ask again why we don't have this position in the United States? I am available for the next President to appoint.) The pictures of the excavation and one of the mosaics on the Nouvel Observateur's Web site are tantalizing. As I can learn more, I will write again.

UPDATE:
Thanks to David Nishimura of Cronaca for linking to this post in reference to the Arles basilica.

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