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20.11.03

Update on the Arles Excavation

I don't understand this, but I have still seen no reference in the major anglophone media of the discovery of an ancient basilica under the construction site of a media center in Arles (see my post on November 17, Site of Early Christian Basilica Discovered in France). As I am able to glean information from French newspapers and magazines, I will keep translating new information here.

According to an article by Baudouin Eschapasse (La cathédrale oubliée, November 21) in Le Point, the excavation is proceeding and will continue until late December, when the entire country of France shuts down for the Christmas holidays:Mosaic from Arles excavation, November 2003

Like the Arlesian woman of Daudet, we've been speaking of it for centuries . . . without ever having seen it. "The cathedral, exhumed last week behind the site of the former convent of Saint-Jean, was described in numerous texts of the Middle Ages," notes Frédéric Raynaud, archeologist in charge of the excavation in Arles. Its discovery has not amazed the researcher any less.

"This is one of the oldest cathedrals of Europe," he explains. "Probably built in the first half of the 4th century, then abandoned around 430 in favor of that of Saint-Trophime" [more pictures of Saint-Trophime]. Which explain why it has not undergone any subsequent modifications in the Romanesque or Gothic periods.

The religious structure, which from initial inspection measures about 15 meters [49.2 feet] wide, follows a basilican plan with no transept, a marble flooring, and a very beautiful mosaic. "If it is not established that the two councils of 314 and 353, which were held in Arles to draw the attention of the Bishop of Rome to the schisms of the period, took place here, this cathedral nevertheless supports the idea that this city's see was the most important in Gaul," points out Marc Heijmans, researcher at the CNRS.

The excavation, which must be interrupted in December, will nevertheless endeavor to determine the date of the entire building and the origin of the columns found in the choir. "From what we can tell, recycled from an earlier pagan temple," according to Frédéric Raynaud. Before construction of the media center that should open on this site in 2005 can begin, "the plans for it will be modified to take into account the treasures underneath," the municipal government affirms.
The Arlesian woman mentioned at the beginning of the article is a reference to a famous story by Alfred Daudet (1840–1897) called L'Arlésienne, in the collection Lettres de mon moulin (1866), in which a young man from the countryside pines after a beautiful but ultimately unfaithful woman from Arles. Unable to marry her and desperately unhappy, the young man throws himself from the top window of his house and dies. The Arlesian woman herself never appears in the story, although she is constantly discussed. Daudet adapted the story as a play in 1872, for which composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875) wrote some charming incidental music (collection into two suites). The story was also set as an opera (L'Arlesiana) by Francesco Cilea with a libretto by Leopoldo Marenco, premiered in Milan in 1897 with a young tenor named Enrico Caruso as Federico.

If you want to see some great pictures of the excavation, the city of Arles's Web site has published a page devoted to the discovery, Une basilique du IVe siècle sous le chantier du médiapôle. I will translate some more sections from their site in the next couple days. Here is how their announcement begins:
Of course, this is an additional patrimonial treasure that will increase the notoriety of Arles. As soon as the excavation has reached its conclusion, government officials want the public to be able to visit the site.
A conference to discuss the discovery will be led by Hervé Schiavetti, Mayor of Arles, on December 2 at 2 pm in the Theater of Arles, followed by a visit to the site. If there is anyone reading Ionarts who can possibly go to Arles for this conference, I will post whatever comments you can make about it. For more information about the city of Arles in late antiquity, you can also visit the cool Web site of the Musée de l'Arles et la Provence antiques and see some of their marvelous collection.

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