Lit­tle Pom­peii

French ar­chae­ol­o­gists un­cover an­cient Ro­man neigh­bor­hood

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

SAINTE-COLOMBE, France — A “lit­tle Pom­peii” is how French ar­chae­ol­o­gists are de­scrib­ing an en­tire an­cient Ro­man neigh­bor­hood un­cov­ered on the out­skirts of the south­east­ern city of Vi­enne, fea­tur­ing re­mark­ably pre­served re­mains of lux­ury homes and public build­ings.

“We’re un­be­liev­ably lucky. This is un­doubt­edly the most ex­cep­tional ex­ca­va­tion of a Ro­man site in 40 or 50 years,” said Ben­jamin Cle­ment, the ar­chae­ol­o­gist lead­ing the dig on the banks of the Rhone river, about 30 kilo­me­ters south of Lyon.

The city of Vi­enne — fa­mous for its Ro­man theater and tem­ple — was an im­por­tant hub on the route con­nect­ing north­ern Gaul with the Ro­man prov­ince of Gal­lia Nar­bo­nen­sis in south­ern France.

The site un­earthed on land await­ing con­struc­tion of a hous­ing com­plex cov­ers an area of nearly 7,000 square me­ters — an un­usu­ally large dis­cov­ery in an ur­ban area that has been la­beled an “ex­cep­tional find” by the French Cul­ture Min­istry.

The neigh­bor­hood, which con­tains homes dat­ing to the 1st cen­tury AD, is be­lieved to have been in­hab­ited for around 300 years be­fore be­ing aban­doned af­ter a se­ries of fires.

Many of the ob­jects that were in place when the in­hab­i­tants fled were con­served, trans­form­ing the area into a “real lit­tle Pom­peii in Vi­enne”, ac­cord­ing to Cle­ment, re­fer­ring to the Ro­man city-state that was largely pre­served af­ter be­ing buried by vol­canic ash.

Among the struc­tures to have partly sur­vived are an im­pos­ing home dubbed the Bac­cha­na­lian House af­ter a tiled floor de­pict­ing a pro­ces­sion of mae­nads (fe­male fol­low­ers of the god of wine, known vari­ably as Diony­sus or Bac­chus) and joy­ful half-man, half-goat crea- tures known as satyrs.

A blaze con­sumed the first floor, roof and bal­cony of the sump­tu­ous home, which boasted balustrades, mar­ble tiling, ex­pan­sive gar­dens and a wa­ter sup­ply sys­tem, but parts of the col­lapsed struc­ture sur­vived.

The ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve the house be­longed to a wealthy mer­chant.

“We will be able to re­store this house from the floor to the ceil­ing,” Cle­ment said.

In an­other house, an ex­quis­ite mo­saic de­picts a bare-bot­tomed Thalia, muse and pa­tron of com­edy, be­ing kid­napped by a lust­ful Pan, god of the satyrs.

In­fi­nite care

The mo­saics are be­ing re­moved with in­fi­nite care and taken away to be re­stored, with a view to be­ing ex­hib­ited in Vi­enne’s mu­seum of Gal­loRo­man civ­i­liza­tion in 2019.

Among the other finds are a large public build­ing with a foun­tain adorned by a statue of Her­cules, built at the site of a for­mer mar­ket.

Cle­ment be­lieves it may have housed a phi­los­o­phy school.

The ex­ca­va­tions, which be­gan in April, had been due to end in mid-Septem­ber but have been ex­tended by the French state un­til the end of the year to al­low time for more dis­cov­er­ies.

In the com­ing months Cle­ment’s 20-strong team will dig down to older parts of the site and ex­plore an area con­tain­ing work­shops.

JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

An ar­chae­ol­o­gist works on a mo­saic at the site near Vi­enne, eastern France.

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