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

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.

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

Embrun was a small settlement in the Roman period (it features on the Peutinger map), along the road between the Rhone and Turin that I mentioned yesterday. It was called Eburodunum - it is not hard to see where the modern name comes from. Some years ago, the town council decided that they wanted to redo the Îlot du Théâtre, along the city's main road, and unfortunately (for the developer), that spot happened to be within the ancient urban area. Worse, a preliminary inspection showed ancient remains. So a full-blown excavation was necessary.

They found a house from the Roman period. Or, rather, part of it. The thing is, with rescue excavations: you only look where there is going to be building activity, and leave it at that. This does not necessarily relate directly to ancient realities. Indeed, the number of fragmentarily known Roman buildings boomed since 1992; the number of well-known Roman buildings developed much more modestly. As you can see at the above picture, the same happened at Embrun.

Embrun, Îlot du Théâtre: Roof of the Roman house - [source]

Still, however, it was an interesting project. First, they found the roof, which was still preserved on the spot - it had just fallen down when the building collapsed, and nobody had ever bothered to do something with it until it had dissappeared under layers of medieval and modern debris. . 

Embrun, Îlot du Théâtre: Roman house: remains of fresco - picture taken during excavation, showing the fragments as they were found [source]

Then, they found a layer of fragments, which if you look very carefully, are fragments of painted plaster - the building - or at least the room in question - was equipped with polychrome Roman-style wall-paintings. Perhaps, these have been reconstructed post-excavation, but I was unable to find out what came out of that. It is more likely that the fragments are still in some depot, unstudied: the Valletta Treaty does not require you to also study what you've found. You only need to excavate and document it and publish a brief report of what you've found.

Finally, they came to the floor level, and they found it had a decent roman concrete pavement, which you can see above. The remarkable quality of the finds, and their neat layering made the excavators believe that the building was destroyed quickly and brutally - perhaps because of a fire. 

What happened at Embrun, happened at many places throughout Europe - particularly, of course, in Italy, and this is now radically changing the way in which we can (and should) study Roman cities: the focus will be less on the standing monuments, and more on the much more fragmentary remains found during rescue excavations. However, how this will change our views on what Roman cities were like, is still a matter of the future.

Bibliography