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19.4.04

Gallo-Roman Mosaics Discovered in Besançon

I have been trying to cover little-reported European arts news from my reading of European (especially French) newspapers and watching the French television news. For some reason, archeological discoveries have been at the top of my list (see the posts on the excavation of the early Christian basilica in Arles from November 20 and on a 5th-century basilica excavated in Marseilles on January 21). There is a recent article that also caught my attention, on an excavation with extensive mosaics in the old city of Besançon. Here is my translation of a large section of the article:

Translated from Le mystère des mosaïques gallo-romaines de Besançon (The mystery of Besançon's Gallo-Roman mosaics, April 17) by Marie-Guy Baron in Le Figaro


The more the excavation proceeds the more it reveals. Besançon's rich Gallo-Roman building, currently being uncovered inside the majestic loop of the Doubs, which continues to produce archeological treasures at the foot of the town's citadel, emerges from the millennia without yielding anything about itself. But its exceptional mosaics are speaking, and their sumptuousness reveals a part of its secret.

The mystery is not in the dating. Undertaken by a team from the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP, National Institute for Preventive Archeological Research) under the direction of the regional leadership for cultural affairs in the Franche-Comté, initiated because of the work on an underground gymnasium at Lumière Middle School in the course of being renovated, the excavations make clear their time period. Of the site's 3,000 square meters (32292 square feet), nearly 2,500 square meters (26910 square feet) have been examined in their uppermost level and several occupations are evident: believed to belong to the Flavian period (end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century AD), the building was reconstructed in the course of the second half of the 2nd century. That's not too shabby, even if Claudine Munier, the team leader, fumes over not having found the inscription of any date.

It is the building's unusual floorplan that raises questions. The presence of gardens and especially of a peristyle make one think of a domus, or patrician residence. But the dimension of the vast rooms and their odd arrangement, with large open hallways at all places to reach them, seem strange. Unable to determine the building's function, we might call it a scola, a local organization tied to all sorts of activities, from amphitheater games to business meetings, which are logical theories for a site along a transport axis like the Doubs. And images of aquatic motifs support it.

So, there it is, the scola is the fashionable theory. The "icing on the cake," as Jean-Pierre Darmon, mosaic specialist from the CNRS, puts it, allows us to put in place what could not be identified. However, this is only a quasi-certainty: there is still the matter of reception halls belonging to a public, semipublic, or private building. This is indicated by the large area of the rooms, the constant presence of spaces for traffic, and the richness of the decoration, with its painted surfaces, its colonnades, and especially its mosaics. The structure includes three large rooms at the ground floor level decorated with these very homogeneous mosaics. The most striking, of almost 200 square meters (2152.8 square feet), was partially excavated in 1973 underneath a neighboring street in the vicinity of the Lumière school. It has a central medallion showing Neptune on his chariot surrounded by coffers with geometric and floral themes. Those that have just been brought to light, inside the school, represent a total of, the one, 65 square meters (699.66 square feet) and, the other, 85 square meters (914.94 square feet). The first is also a carpet of coffers with similar geometric patterns and its central medallion depicts the Aegis, Athena's shield ornamented with Medusa's head in its protective function. [...]

In the style of the "typically Gallo-Roman" motifs, Jean-Pierre Darmon sees the likely involvement of Italians mosaicists. The only question is whether they came directly to the center of this already active city, which had been occupied since the neolithic period, or if they came by way of the Narbonne region, whose footprint he thinks he recognizes. At least this may have been the work of an itinerant workshop.

The artistry represents "the summit of geometric decorative art, in particular in the mastery of the organization of space and in the delicacy of the tesserae," numbering from 140 to 300 per square decimeter (1.55 square inches) for Neptune, according to the specialist. But also in the imaginative quality of these elaborate borders, these plantlike scroll patterns, these braids with two or three strands, these check-patterns of upright and inverted T's in alternation, and these previously unknown motifs of double winged caducei, symbol of Hermes, god of business and thieves, among other things. On the other hand, the largest tesserae and the least elegant craftsmanship of the face of Medusa indicate a lesser figural skill. [...]

This excavation of 2,600 days, where 15 people are working, must be concluded by November 1. It promises other discoveries at lower levels that might shed light on the Gallic period or even earlier eras. While we wait, these splendid mosaics, moving in their present state even while disrupted by waves from the seeping in of the nearby Doubs, will soon be restored by Evelyne Chantriaux and her mosaic workshop in Saint-Romain-en-Gal. Then they will be studied and will be the focus, one hopes, of publication and public exhibition. Domus of a nouveau riche Gallo-Roman, meeting hall of ambitious merchants, or building with a powerful public role, archeological science will no doubt tell us one day.
I have not been able to find images or other information about this excavation. If any readers have any more information, please let me know. You can look at some images of similar mosaics until that happens. There is one tiny image in this article on the excavation from France 2 and another in this article from France 3.

UPDATE:
Cronaca has linked to this post, with information on another story on these mosaics, including a nice photograph.

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