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21.1.04

If You Dig, You Will Find It

A short item on the news from France 2 last night tipped me off to another archeological find in southern France. The online notice (Marseille: une basilique du Ve s. [Marseilles: a basilica from the 5th century], January 19) has a picture of the excavation under way for a new parking lot, during which a necropolis was found. The location of this necropolis was known to scholars, but the excavation also uncovered the foundations of an as yet unidentified basilica on the site. On France 2, the archeologists at the site identified a central tomb as set off from the rest of the necropolis. By its decoration and separating wall, it is thought to be the final resting place of a saint or other special person. According to them, this tomb appears to be undisturbed. They will open it when they have completed measuring and recording the ruins as they found them. Here is my translation of what you can read on the Web site:

Remains of an early Christian funerary basilica dating back to the 5th century have been brought to light in Marseilles. The discovery, described by the Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, as "exceptional," was made as part of planned excavations for the construction of a parking lot. The edifice was located in the present-day neighborhood of La Joliette, near the commercial port, and was 18 meters [59 feet] wide and more than 35 meters [115 feet] long. It was supposedly abandoned in the 7th century. About 50 sarcophagi, as well as tiled tombs or urns for young children, have been found.

"The exceptional nature of this discovery is underscored by the exceptional state of conservation of liturgical components associated with the 'memoria' (special sepulcher) and the altar, as well as the quality of interior decoration that apparently adorned the edifice, which suffered a large removal of stone after it was abandoned," specified the Minister of Culture in an announcement. The excavations should be concluded during the month of February.

This is the second time in a few months that early Christian ruins have been discovered in the Bouches-du-Rhône: in November, a cathedral constructed around 350 was discovered in the garden of a former convent in Arles, during construction. It is supposedly the first constructed in France, according to researchers from the CNRS.
Readers may remember my reports on the basilica at Arles (see posts on November 17 and November 20), a building that was well known to scholars of the early Christian period but whose precise location had been unknown. Early this month, an official of the city government of Arles kindly sent me some materials from the conference on the excavation that took place on December 2, days before the devastating floods that hit Arles (see my post on December 6). You can see some of the images that were sent to me on a page from the city of Arles about the conference (La basilique paléochrétienne d’Arles, January 9), including a computer reconstruction of what the apse may have looked like, based on the mosaic pieces that were found. Here are some of the remarks made by those who attended the conference in Arles (my translation):
Jean-Paul Demoule for INRAP (National Institute for Preventive Archeological Research): "I am not sure that the same discovery would have brought together such an audience in another town." INRAP, with its 1,500 archeologists, deals with 2,000 operations each year throughout France to avoid massive damage, such as that inflicted on the remains of the Greek port in Marseilles during the 1960s, for example.

Jean-Maurice Rouquette [Honorary Curator of the Museums of Arles] remembers the discovery of Fernand Benoît, his history teacher, in 1943. "While digging defensive trenches—it was World War II—he came upon a great wall and an ancient column in the garden of the Saint-Césaire convent. He thought he had found the remains of a temple to Diana. I am convinced today that it was the basilica's wall, which reaches from the transept crossing to the Rue du Grand Couvent!"
I will continue to follow both of these archeological stories as they develop.

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