Tour des Fouilles (21): Pagans under the Nôtre Dame de Paris

Since its construction in the Middle Ages, the Nôtre Dame de Paris was used as burial ground for its bishops, arch-bishops and priests. As you may imagine, things began to get a bit crowded after a while, and in the early 18th century, it was decided to build a new crypt, underneath the choir, as a final resting place for arch-bishops. Construction began in the early spring of 1710. While excavating the space needed for the crypt, the workers unexpectedly encountered - underneath the medieval burials - 'nine cubic stones, with on each of their vertical sides a different relief accompanied with an inscription'.  


Tour des Fouilles (20): No entry for cars - the campus pecuarius of Aix-les-Bains

Rhône-Alpes: Inscription from Aix-les-Bains -

In 1869, archaeologists in Aix-les-Bains found, somewhere in the town, a long Latin inscription. It was a stone, inscribed on two sides with the same text. While the text was - as often - damaged, it proved possible to reconstruct and translate the first part of the text, which read something like:

"Let no-one enter this cattle field with a car, except when there is a market or if one is a guest to be lodged in the Asicianus or Paconianus pavillion, or if one wants to go to the (sacred?) woods. Whoever will enter with a car otherwise will pay a fine of ..."

The text probably stood along some road, and was intended to regulate traffic in or around the Vicus Aquae Sextiae - Roman Aix-les-Bains - which is directly underneath the Mont Revard. The text - which is unique in this region - sheds light on another aspect of 'Romanization' in this region: the establishment of formal, legal frameworks.

The inscription also tells us quite a bit about the regional economy: cattle-breeding played a major role, and there may have been wood-production as well. Even in small settlements like Aquae Sextiae, there were periodic markets, where traders would come to sell their wares - you may think of textiles, metal products, and pottery, and jewellery - basically anything for which demand locally was too low to feed a specialized craftsman. Perhaps also wine and olive oil (as these had to be imported). 

Tour des Fouilles (19): the mosaics of Gilly-sur-Isère

Gilly, Villa Gallo-Romaine: Detail of mosaic from room M -

Let's talk mosaics a little bit. Discovering a mosaic floor is among the most rewarding experiences of field archaeology. This starts with the moment you realize you are actually finding some fixed concrete floor level - which in itself is already a great (and rare) experience - and then follows with the discovery that the floor has some decorative pattern. From that point, the story slowly unfolds, day after day: the pattern becomes a motif, the motif becomes a composition, and the composition becomes a story. We were lucky to have this experience in Pompeii, in 2007 (see the picture below), and though the mosaic essentially proved irrelevant to the main aim of the campaign, it was the most exciting discovery we did that year.


Tour des Fouilles (18): How to build a road through the mountains

Bons: Remains of a Roman tunnel -

The valley of the Romanche river, in antiquity, looked a little bit different from today. Probably, there was a large lake close to where Le Bourg d'Oisans is now situated: most of the lower valley floor, which now is agricultural land, was inaccessible. This made the valley less attractive for humans, and as a consequence, there were no major roman settlements in the area. Still, it was not empty: like most valleys running in east-west direction, it had its Roman road, and some small settlements  were clustered around it, one of which, Catorissium, known from the Peutinger Map, is often associated with Le Bourg d'Oisans, though there is actually little hard evidence found on the spot.


Tour des Fouilles (17): Embrun: the discovery of a Roman house

Embrun, Îlot du Théâtre: Floor level of the Roman house - Two rooms can be distinguished: one with a concrete floor, and one without. [source]

One of the most significant developments in archaeology of the last twenty-five years is the Valletta Treaty of 1992. The Valletta Treaty, was designed to protect archaeological heritage against undocumented destruction. Basically, it means that, before a building project can start, the archaeological value of the place has to be assessed, and if deemed necessary, excavation needs to take place (by the way: not at the expense of the taxpayer, but at the expense of the developer). Often, this is only done when archaeological remains cannot be left undisturbed, which obviously always is preferable.  Practically, this means that you need to excavate if you want to build a big building in a city that has a rich Roman or Medieval past. Such as Embrun, where today's Time Trial starts.


Tour des Fouilles (16): Mons Seleucus - Roman globalization in the high Alps

La Bâtie-Montsaléon: Overview of the 2005 excavation -

So today, the peloton enters the Alps. Compared to the Pyrenees, there is a lot more happening in this area in the Roman period - and understandably so, since the Alps were bordered on the west by the wealthy and densely populated Rhone Valley, and on the East, by the Po Valley, which was even wealthier and more densely populated. Moreover, there was, as the Peutinger Table indicates, there were at least two major roads over the passes connecting the two - one used the Col de Montgénèvre, and the other one, further to the North, over the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard. Today and tomorrow, the race is in the Durance Basin, which was crossed by roads connecting Valence and Arles to Augusta Taurinorum (Turin).

One of the places along these roads was called Mons Seleucus, which is present-day La Bâtie-Montsaléon - the race rides past it some 55k before the finish line. The name of Mons Seleucus is remarkable for a place in Gaul, since it seems to refer to the monarchs of the Seleucid Empire (who were all called 'Seleucus') - which was situated in present-day Syria, Iraq and Iran (and parts of Turkey) in the third and second centuries BC. We do not know the story behind the name, but it is attested in several ancient itineraries. Mons Seleucus also played its part in Late-Roman political history: on July 3rd, 353 AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II beat his rival Magnentius here, in what is called the Battle of Mons Seleucus (Magnentius committed suicide afterwards - this is how these things go). 


Tour des Fouilles (15): The Roman bridge of Vaison and the miracle of 1992

Vaison-la-Romaine, Pont Romain: View from the east -

Vaison-la-Romaine is famous for its Roman remains. The settlement - a city in size, but without walls or a regular street grid - was the main city of the Gaulish tribe of the Vocontii. There are two major exacavations around the centre of the town, and they are a regional tourist hotspot. You can see the remains of urban villas, of several bath complexes, of streets with shops, and of a theatre, and the museum has a great collection of art objects found during the excavation of the site, which happened in the early twentieth century. It is, in other words, one of those sites that archaeologists would recommend to friends, family and other interested non-specialists. Vaison also has a Roman bridge, crossing the Ouvèze, connecting the city to the road that ran on the other side.


Tour des Fouilles (14): Big City

Lyon, Theatre: Overview of the theatre -

Forget Lutetia. There is no discussion as to what was, by far, the largest and most important city in Roman Gaul, and that was Lugdunum, modern Lyon. Indeed, there are arguments to support the idea that, after Rome, Lugdunum was the most important city in the western, Latin-speaking half of the Roman empire - in some ways maybe even comparable to Alexandria in Egypt, though the latter was much bigger in size (and distinctly less Roman in character).  Lugdunum was founded shortly after the death of Caesar, in 43 BC, and when Augustus rose to power, in 27 BC, he made Lugdunum the capital of the three Gaulish provinces, thus turning the city into a major political center. The city got a branch of the official mint in 15 BC, and was a major source of Roman coins for most of the imperial period. The imperial family also spent a lot of time in Lugdunum. Augustus visited the place three times; Drusus, his adopted son (and the brother of the later emperor Tiberius) lived in the city from 13BC until shortly before his death in 9BC. His son, the later emperor Claudius, was born in Lugdunum


Tour des Fouilles (13): A theatre on the riverside

Drevant, Théâtre: Old postcard of the theatre -

A couple of kilometres south of St. Amand Montrond, on the shore of the Cher River, lies the small village of Drevant. It has 510 inhabitants, a chapel rather than a church, one restaurant, and no supermarket, but it does have a Roman Theatre - right on the riverside. It used to be a regionally famous post-card spot in the late 19th and early 20th century, as you can see on the image below (and on this picture). More than 1500 years after it lost its primary function, it is still the most important place in the village. It is certainly not the only place in the village were Roman remains have turned up, but it certainly is the most spectacular.


Tour des Fouilles (12): The amphitheatre of Tours

Tours, Rue Manceau: Tours - The remains of the Roman amphitheater are still visible in the urban landscape

Caesarodunum was a major Roman city in the first centuries of our era. It was the chief city of the Turones, which gave the place its modern name - Tours. The city was situated at one of the few major crossing points of the Loire, and played a key role in the road network of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis. Tours was directly connected to Brittanny in the west, the Rhone Valley in the east, and Gallia Aquitania to the south. There also was a good connection to the north.