The Journees du Patrimoine took place for the 31st time in France this past weekend. The event was started in 1984 by the then French minister for culture, Jack Lang. The aim was to allow the French public to visit their national heritage monuments and buildings, which were usually closed to the public or rarely visited. Following the success of the French initiative, several European countries started their own “heritage weekends” in 1985, and in 1991 the European Union officially instituted the European Heritage Days, to be held on the third weekend of September each year.
So it was that I found myself in Narbonne last Sunday afternoon, to visit the Clos de la Lombarde excavation site.
Narbonne was founded in 118 BC and became the capital of Roman Gaul. The museums in Narbonne have an important collection of finds from the Roman period of the town, and I wanted to see where some of these pieces had come from. The excavation site is right in Narbonne, next to the cemetery, and it had miraculously survived without being built over until our times. In 1973 the treasury decided to build a tax office on the site, and initial surveys were carried out by local archaeologists. What they found was spectacular, and in 1974 excavations started. In the intervening years, the site has been pretty much excavated all over.
Sunday afternoon was hot and humid, but that did not deter any of the many visitors. When I arrived at the site I felt a little disappointed – it looked just like a lot of dust and rubble at first glance. BUT there were guided visits, and after a brief wait, during which I tried my hand at assembling a piece of fresco, we were off with our guide. A word on the fresco puzzle – they were not pieces of real Roman wall paintings, but recreated with plasterboard (sheetrock) and paint.
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable – she had been part of the excavation team for a long time, and knew the history of the site as well as anybody. What we had in front of us were the remains of a block of houses, with roads visible on three sides. Our guide was wonderful at bringing life to the dust and rubble all around us. Here is a map:
The green areas are the roads, with the two running north/south on the map being major roads, with a well-made surface. The roads at a right angle were narrower and not as much used. The first house we looked at is called Maison a Portiques, the house of the porches, so-called because it had a porch running along two sides of it. The one along the main road was wide enough for pedestrians to walk under and perhaps for merchants to set up stalls. The Maison a Portiques dates from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In the picture below you are looking along the road, and you’d be standing under the roof of the porch. The square block would have been the base for one of the columns holding up the roof of the porch. The chains mark out the wall of the house, and on the left of the picture they mark out the edge of the road.
The door on the main street led into a spacious hallway, and beyond the hallway was the interior garden of the house.
The members of the association Les Amis du Clos de la Lombarde have tried to recreate some feel of the garden. Right ahead is the well – the stone surround is cut from one single piece of rock. Behind it is a basin, which was filled with water on the previous day. The floor of the basin is covered in opus spicatum, flat bricks laid on their sides in a herringbone pattern. The Romans used a lime mortar mixed with crushed brick to create a watertight finish. 2000 years later it is still watertight – isn’t that astonishing??
Behind the round basin was a square basin. Unfortunately part of that basin had been destroyed when an early Christian basilica had been built in the 4th century AD. You can see the the herringbone pattern brickwork and the slightly pink render on the walls of the basin. In the top right hand corner is a lead plate, which allowed the basin to be drained.
All around the edge of the garden was a channel which could be flooded, perhaps to cool the air, or to water the plants? The house was connected to “mains” water by a lead pipe – and in those days not every house had that convenience. If you look very careful at the picture with the channel you can just about make out a raised round area which would have been where a column would have stood.
Some of the rooms still had their original floors in place, although to see the beautiful mosaic floors you’ll have to visit the archaeological museum in Narbonne, where they are preserved.
Part-way through our visit we had a little interruption. A group of local amateur actors had prepared a sketch after a story by Seneca. Lucilius, the owner of the house of the porches, had invited Marcus Clodius, his neighbour, and Sagaristio, a friend, for a house-warming party. Unfortunately the construction works were running late (some things never change 🙂 ). The triclinium, the dining room, was not yet finished, so Lucilius offered his friends some of his fine wines. Lemniselenis, the wife of Marcus Clodius, had not been invited, but told us bits of the story from the sidelines. There was a little incident with one of the servants, which required some audience participation :)! All of the dialogue was spoken in Latin, but I confess that I did not remember very much from my school days!!
I took a video of some of it for you – unfortunately my camera decided to stop halfway through, so you will have to imagine Lemniselenis’ cook, Paulus Bocus, coming past the house and tempting the hungry visitors with this menu:
Pepones et Melones (melon and watermelon with pepper)
Perna (pork roasted in a crust, with figs)
Pulum frontonianum (chicken in a pot)
Patina ex lacte (dessert with milk baked in the oven – flan?)
Patina de piris (pears cooked with honey and spices)
Dulcia domestica (dates stuffed with pine nuts and honey)
Mustea et panis mellitus (pancakes and honeyed bread)
I guess we’d have all gone over to Marcus Clodius’ house for that feast! Come to think of it, perhaps that’s a menu I could cook with my friends at one of our cookery get-togethers? Here’s the video (e-mail subscribers please visit the WordPress site to see the video):
After that lovely diversion we continued our visit. Here’s an interesting item, which is still in its original position:
It is located under what could have been stairs up to a first floor. Its use? A kind of emergency toilet! The Roman houses did not have their own toilets – if you had to go, you went to the neighbourhood therme, the baths, to relieve yourself. This emergency toilet was or is still linked to the drain which is in the road outside the house.
At some point in the 3rd century AD the houses were abandoned, for reasons unknown. It is supposed that, because of unrest and the threat of invasion, the inhabitants moved to safer quarters inside the town. Bit by bit the houses fell apart, and lucky for us, they were not pillaged too badly at the time. A lot of the plaster murals fell to the floor, and the archaeologists were able to piece some of them together. The reconstituted frescoes are on display in the archaeological museum in Narbonne, along with the mosaic floors. Here is our guide, holding up illustrations of some of the murals:
To give you an idea of size, the Maison a Portiques occupies 975 square metres (8775 square feet). It must have been a large house, even in its day. The adjoining house on the block is called Maison III, and is slightly smaller; it “only” occupies 700 square metres (6300 square feet)! Maison III is known the way it was in the 2nd century AD. Fashions had changed, and the garden of this property was surrounded by the house in a U-shape. The basin in the garden was entirely lined with white marble. And amazingly, this basin also still holds the water!
Maison III also held a real puzzle for the archaeologists! In one of the rooms the floor was badly cracked and subsiding. When they probed underneath, they found that something had been filled in. And when that something had been fully excavated, it appeared to have been a giant fish tank – a living larder. This pool could be filled by a lead pipe from the well, and there was also a drain to the street. On one side there were steps into the water, so the fish could be caught easily. The holes at the bottom are the mouths of amphorae. Perhaps they were there to allow smaller fish to shelter from larger predatory fish?
Here is another picture of the garden of Maison III, along with a model reconstitution, showing what the house might have looked like:
Beyond Maison III lay the neighbourhood baths. Our guide explained that a large part of the baths were below the cemetery next door, but for obvious reasons they had not been given permission to explore there :(. Since the cemetery was first built it has been well known that the land had previously been occupied – several of the tombs have mosaic floors…
The final part of our guided visit covered the early Christian basilica, which was built towards the end of the 4th century AD. Some of the cut stones from the earlier constructions were reclaimed for the building of the basilica, which was built over the remains of the Roman houses.
I think I’ll leave you here – there’s so much to discover, so much to see, so much historical context! It would be beyond the scope of this blog to give you much more information – I leave that to the experts, who will be only too happy to show you everything there is to see at Clos de la Lombarde, when you visit yourself!