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Spectacular Roman Excavation in Nîmes

Image by Denis GliskmanThe Roman history of Gaul has always fascinated me. Here comes the latest discovery, an exceptional excavation in Nîmes has allowed the rediscovery of 6,500 square meters of the Roman city underneath, in a remarkably well-preserved state. The dig is described by Anne-Marie Romero in an article (À Nîmes, sous les pavés Nemausus, February 12) for Le Figaro (my translation and links added):

It is the largest window ever opened on the ancient past of Nîmes, or Nemausus as it was known in Roman times: the entire Cours Jean-Jaurès, the walking park that majestically crosses the town from the Jardins de la Fontaine up to the ancient fortifications, today has been disemboweled over a space 400 meters long and 17 meter wide, unveiling a spectacle comparable, all things being equal, to that at Pompeii. Streets, covered in paving stones, crossed with alleys, houses with floors covered in mosaics and with painted walls, statue monuments. And the show has only just begun. Archeologists of the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (Inrap), directed by Jean-Yves Breuil, have until the end of July to uncover this entire neighborhood of the ancient citadel, miraculously preserved by being turned into a promenade in the 18th century. Then they must give the land back to the city, who will turn it into a parking lot.

The emblem of Nemausus was a crocodile on a palm tree, symbol of the enslavement of Egypt to the Empire, and witness to the status of colony of the Roman law acquired by the town in 44 B.C., when Rome gave out lands here to its veterans. But Nîmes had been in existence long before that. For example, the Magne Tower, which dominates La Fontaine, is the last vestige of the Gallic oppidum, built here in the 4th century B.C. [...]

The town is atypical. It has several centers: the Forum (of which only the Maison Carrée remains), the Augusteum around La Fontaine (on the site of the Gallic oppidum), which has left us the Temple supposedly dedicated to Diana and the amphitheater now transformed into a bullfighting arena. The neighborhood to the south of La Fontaine was a residential area, fairly well-to-do. But in the third century, in a phenomenon found universally throughout Gaul, the town's borders were redrawn and, in the Middle Ages, it grew up more around the cathedral. The Jean-Jaurès neighborhood was abandoned. Nothing would be constructed there again, and its transformation into a promenade preserved it in its 3rd-century state.
The archeologists have discovered a large paved road, more than 7 meters wide, with sewers on either side, and houses with column bases indicating porticos. Most of them have black and white mosaic floors with geometric motifs. One beautiful example has an emblema, a woman's head in a circular medallion, surrounded by fish. Wall paintings discovered so far are mostly of floral motifs. The most spectacular find so far is a rectangular fountain of masonry, some 12 square meters in size, accessed by a gently sloped, paved walkway. A niche on one side probably contained a statue, possibly the statue of Neptune found lying down behind it. The fountain was apparently filled with coins thrown into the water, evidence that the practice of throwing a penny into the fountain goes back a long way. The archeological team will continue the excavation as long as they are allowed.


Anonymous said...

"Then they must give the land back to the city, who will turn it into a parking lot." Good grief! What a crime. This reminds me of Ostia Antica near Rome, but that it's thankfully being restored and preserved.

Charles T. Downey said...

Hi, Marja-Leena! Since I have not written anything about Finland in a while, I thought you might not still be reading.

As long as the site can be thoroughly documented and the antiquities removed to museums, that makes it a little more tolerable, I guess. It would be great to keep something like this, but I suppose that cities, even old ones, have to keep growing.

Best wishes!

Rupert Goodwins said...

In the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, the Wohl Archaeological Museum houses a selection of in-situ Herodian-era houses in an extensive complex below ground level, under a modern building.

It's a very effective way of preserving and presenting the material, with a museum-style presentation of finds, a lecture room and plenty of other exhibits integrated with the buildings themselves. Excavation is still going on, too.

Not cheap, and in terms of national importance and rarity I doubt the Nimes site, although splendid, compares with what's in the Wohl. Compared to a car park, though...

Charles T. Downey said...

Rupert, that's a great idea, drawn from what sounds like a comparable site. I wonder if anyone in Nîmes has thought of doing something like that.