Underground treasures

Here is the continuation of the story of my visit to Beziers during this year’s European heritage days.  After visiting to the former prison (see article here), I went to the cathedral, which was right next door.  Behind the cathedral is the cloister, which was part of the archbishop’s palace complex, and there was the promise of a guided visit to show what lay beneath the cloister.

I was intrigued from the moment I had read the programme of the day’s events, and this visit was high on my list of priorities!  The weather was not great and it had started to rain when I entered the cathedral, so I was very glad that I could wait under cover for the start of the guided visit.  It also gave me a chance to have a good look around and to take some photographs!! 🙂

The evacuation plan of the cloister showed that it was not perfectly square as I had imagined it to be!

The cloister dates from the 14th century and was never completed – a first floor should have been built on top of the arcades.

The gothic vaulting has many sculpted decorations – some have survived remarkably well!

At some time in the past, the cloister served to exhibit a collection of stone fragments from antiquity.  Here’s what looked like at that time:

There’s something very romantic to black and white photographs, don’t you think?

The most beautiful pieces have since been transferred to the Musee Bitterois.  This is what it looks like today:

When the appointed time came for our visit, the guide took our group through a small door and down some stair.  I’d walked down those stairs before – they lead to the gardens on the terrace below the archbishop’s palace!

We skipped going to the archbishop’s garden, and instead walked down some more stairs, and then through a heavy wooden door.  Behind that door was a gallery of the same size as the cloister above, but with a barrel vaulted ceiling!!  This was the ‘cellar’ of the south gallery of the cloister.

The archaeology department of Beziers town discovered the underground galleries by chance in the 1950s.  They had been completely filled up with rubble and dirt, probably during the 19th century and perhaps before.

During the 1970s, the south gallery was entirely excavated, and work started on the west gallery.  The idea was that all four galleries would be excavated, and that the space would be turned into a lapidary museum, housing the stone collection that was on display in the cloister, as well as the stones which were found in the rubble during the excavations.

The west gallery was only partly excavated – work stopped in 1978 and was never resumed!

Our guide was an archaeologist who works for the town of Beziers.  The archaeology department is of course understaffed and underfunded – no surprises there! The available resources are fully occupied with doing preventative archaeology on the many building sites in the town!

Part of the western gallery was once a refectory for the monastery which was attached to the cathedral.  I’m not sure if it was part of the building which preceeded to the current cathedral – that was burnt down in 1209 during the cathar crusades!  If I understood correctly, the wall against which the ladder was leaning was the outside wall of the refectory.

Two diagrams showed the lay of the land:

The wooden ceiling in the western gallery was installed in preparation for the museum space.  The tubes for the wiring of the ceiling lights are all in place too!!

The stonework from the various building periods is remarkably well preserved.

So there you have it!  When you next visit the cloister in Beziers, you’ll know what lies beneath your feet!!

After that fascinating visit, I continued on my way to explore other interesting sites in Beziers!  I’ll write more soon about my discoveries!

Romans and ruins

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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The door on the main street led into a spacious hallway, and beyond the hallway was the interior garden of the house.

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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.

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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!!

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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)
Ostreae (oysters)
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:

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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!

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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?

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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!

 

History unearthed

On my last visit to the Salin in Gruissan I came across a leaflet advertising guided visits of an archaeological site on the Ile St Martin at Gruissan.  I’m forever curious when it comes to things like that, so off I went recently to explore, as the site is only open for July and August.  Before going I tried to pinpoint the spot on an aerial view, without any success.  So I just drove past the Salin and hoped for the best :-).  After a few kilometers I noticed a small sign followed not much later by another, which directed me to where the site is.  I really didn’t know what to expect.

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The guide was already at the far end with a group of people, but there was a waiting area with information panels and display cases, and some benches.

The items in the display cases were fascinating :

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After a little while of waiting I decided to explore outside the site, since it looked as though there would be a little while before the start of the next guided visit.  And the exploration was well worthwhile, the views were fantastic!

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P1040187Soon it was time to get back to the site for the tour.  Our guide gave us some of the history of the present site.  When a vineyard was ploughed up in 1986 a number of items were found and as a consequence the land was acquired by the municipality in exchange for another piece of land.  Preliminary explorations between 1988 and 1990 allowed the experts to date the occupation of the site between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, and in 1999 the real digging began.  It became apparent that there had been a number of buildings on the site. The archaeologists found evidence of stone walls and remains of a hypocaust, the Roman version of under-floor heating. The site was then closed until digging resumed again in 2011, and since then work has been carried out in June by a team of archaeologists helped by groups of students.

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The guide explained that the site was probably part of the port administration – the sea would have been much closer 2000 years ago than it is now, and the Ile St Martin was really an island then.

We started off where the upper part of a mill had been found.

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The upper part of the mill was in pretty good condition, but of the lower part only pieces had been found.  Nearby was the bottom part of a bread oven, so the archaeologists deducted that that particular building must have housed a bakery.  A few steps away the base and capital of a column had been found and left in-situ, and just in front of that were the remains of some kind of drain, amazingly intact.

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IMG_8098Then we came to an area which our guide explained must have been a kind of store house as many amphorae had been found embedded in the floor.  Some of them had been broken whilst others remained pretty intact.  Next year the one which is still more or less in one piece will be filled with sand, to stop it collapsing when the earth around it is scraped away!

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The next “find” was a drain, beautifully and solidly built nearly 2000 years ago!  In the second picture you can see the red colour of the soil near the drain.  Effectively the drain was for the balnea, the Roman bathhouse just next door

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In the balnea the water was heated by a wood fire for the basins.  Our guide explained that it was assumed that the port was providing services for merchant seamen, who came ashore after lengthy voyages, and who needed a good bath!  That, he thought, also accounted for the sturdy drain close by, as there would have been lots of dirty water :-)!  One of the basins was round and the one next door rectangular, and the floors are still very smooth.

IMG_8105 IMG_8107Next we admired the remains of a dolium, a large terracotta storage container, much larger than the amphora we had seen earlier.  This particular dolium had unfortunately been broken during exploratory work, but an intact one had been extracted and shipped off somewhere (perhaps the local museum?).  The archaeological museum in Narbonne has several impressive examples on display.

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The next part of the site had not been fully excavated, but according to the guide we were at first floor level rather than ground floor level, looking into what could have been a courtyard.  The stone wall had been beautifully made and an exploration this year in the far corner showed that the wall continued a fair way below soil level.

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The well will be excavated over the next few years – it might yield a great many artifacts!  An almost identical well exists on the adjoining property, where it still supplies fresh water.

IMG_8117 IMG_8118The next interesting exhibit was a Roman rubbish heap – if you look closely you can see layers upon layers of debris, which accumulated over time.  IMG_8121

The channel might have been for drainage or supplying fresh water?

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The square bricks were part of the hypocaust, the Roman underfloor heating, and apparently the hollow bricks were there to stop the others from bursting due to overheating!  This was where the second balnea of the complex was located.  Smaller than the first, and perhaps more for the officers than the sailors?

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The rounded wall is not Roman but medieval and part of a storage silo.  The site was apparently inhabited quite late.

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And finally we came to what is thought to have been the main building of the complex.  The walls were formed by huge stone blocks.

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Internally the building was divided into four rooms by lathe-and-plaster walls.  The holes of the wooden uprights are still visible in the floor.

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In one of the rooms a Roman weighing scale was found and there were many coins which were dug up, leading to speculations that this could have been some form of customs post.  The red colour of the earth floor could indicate that the building was destroyed by fire.

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Now a few words on some of the finds in the display cases.  On the site a good number of pieces of terra sigillata have been found.  Terra sigillata is a kind of Roman pottery, which literally means “clay bearing little images”, and which was widely distributed throughout the Roman empire.  I adore the smooth, silky surface and the exquisite decoration on some of the pieces.  Apparently the maker’s mark is always stamped on the inside of the vessel

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In the one box there was some other pottery, among them a very delicate bowl, the base of an amphora and also two oil lamps.  The larger one in the bottom right hand corner is very interesting as it is made of bone rather than the usual terracotta.  To my amazement the guide handed it round for everyone to have a good look, along with a few other delicate pieces of pottery.  It’s the first time that I’ve had anything this old in my hands!

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Box number two contained other interesting bits found on the site.  In the top right hand corner is part of the mill stone (remember the mill at the beginning?).  Just to the left are four metal objects:  a hook and three nails.  The large encrusted piece is what a nail looks like before it is cleaned up.  On the very left is a piece of lead pipe and bottom left is an iron tool which was a kind of hoe.  The two small bits of bone are bovine teeth and I cannot for the life of me remember which animal the vertebrae came from.

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So, if you are in the area during July and August, make the trip to Gruissan and see what the ground has yielded during the next season of excavations!

P.S.  Here’s a special thanks to Annie, my dedicated proof-reader, without whom you would have to endure many typos and errors!!  Thank you, Annie!