Remains of massive 2nd c. building found in France

Remains of 2nd c. Roman building on the site of an old municipal soccer fieldUnder a disused municipal soccer field in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a city in the northern French province of Oise, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have unearthed the remains of a massive 2nd century A.D. Gallo-Roman building while surveying the site for future construction. Hundreds of limestone blocks, many of them carved, were found buried in the sandy soil next to the Compiègne-Senlis national highway, formerly a Roman road.

Architectural archaeologist rendering of part of facadeIt was built at the end of the reign of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161 A.D.) and appears to have collapsed very soon after construction. The structure was an estimated 90 meters (295 feet) wide and 9.5 meters (31 feet) high, but only one meter (three feet) thick. That bold architectural choice of building so high a wall without bracing doubtless played a major role in its untimely demise, along with the sandy soil on which it was built. The facade had a series of 13-17 arches in the center, the building blocksReconstruction of facade with central arches of which are lying horizontally where they fell. They were sufficiently broken and damaged to spare them from stone scavengers, but expertly preserved by the dry sand that became their home for almost 2,000 years.

Carved blocks, Venus headless on the rightArchaeologists aren’t certain yet of what purpose the building was dedicated to, but it could have been a religious sanctuary of some kind sponsored by a hugely wealthy patron. Almost the entire Greco-Roman pantheon is represented in the high quality bas-relief carvings of the frieze. They were carved in a Hellenistic style entirely unlike anything else found in the north of Gaul. The work is so exquisite that it’s not likely to have been carved locally. It’s the kind of statuary you’d expect to find in Rome or Greece, not in distant northern Gallic provinces, even at the height of imperial prosperity in the 2nd century. Somebody paid an enormous amount of money to build this monumental structure.

Detail of petrified old ladyThere are realistic depictions of Jupiter as the horned ram Ammon, horses, griffins, floral and geometric reliefs, and a figure of Venus next to the head and hand of an old woman poised as if she’s whispering, a representation of the myth of Venus turning an old woman to stone after she betrayed the location of Venus and Mars’ adulterous tryst, causing them to be found in flagrante delicto by her husband Vulcan. There’s Juno’s peacock, Diana’s quiver and bow, and a face that could be the Medusa, although her snakes are missing so it’s hard to say. Traces of the original color paint that made ancient Roman statuary and architecture so deliciously garish have survived, an exceptionally rare discovery since the paint was often the first to go. Sections of red cinnabar, light green and yellow are clearly visible to the naked eye.

Traces of surviving paintNot only is this huge building unrecorded in surviving sources, but there is no known Gallo-Roman settlement in the area. Ancient docks have been found elsewhere in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, so something was certainly going on at that locale. We just don’t know what. Even after it collapsed people still found things to do there. Coins from the fourth century have been found among the ruins.

Unfortunately archaeologists won’t have the chance to study the site thoroughly. Excavations began two months ago and will continue through the end of June. Then the team has to clear out to make way for the construction crews that will build a shopping center on the site. The fact that there’s an archaeological treasure there that is literally without precedent apparently won’t even cause a delay. All INRAP can do is move the limestone blocks to temporary storage while they find a permanent location to study and document the stones uninterrupted. How they’re going to move all those blocks without damaging them in the very short window of time they have is not yet clear.

 

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8 Comments »

Comment by fourtimestwenty
2014-05-29 05:21:11

Where exactly is that ‘hypermarket’ to be built ? Is the ‘A1′ what is referred to as ‘the ancient Roman road Compiègne-Senlis’, or is it possibly the ‘D2017′ ? My personal guess is that we are dealing here with some sort of Gallo-Roman Supermarket, and it is therefore highly questionable if the new ‘hypermarket’ will be as rock solid as the ancient one.

Alternatively, an ‘aquaeductus’ or some sort of ‘bridge’, possibly leading to a former island in the L’Oise river, might be the answer:

Good Buy, chers amis !
:hattip:

Comment by livius drusus
2014-05-29 12:14:26

Ah, but the ancient one collapsed almost as soon as it went up, so I hope the new one is a little less fragile. ;)

I don’t think a utility feature like an aqueduct or bridge would explain the extremely expensive sculptures and reliefs.

 
 
Comment by John H
2014-05-29 11:45:40

I admit that based on the description, an aqueduct was the first thing that sprang to my mind. I’d guess there was probably something about the location that made the archaeologists rule that out – or not even consider it.

Comment by livius drusus
2014-05-29 12:11:53

I think the high quality sculptural elements and the building’s footprint rule out an aqueduct. Also, it’s much less likely for an aqueduct, which would stretch on for miles in plain sight, to not be recorded or remembered than for a single building.

 
 
Comment by Finarfin
2014-05-29 14:56:39

Such a shame that there won’t be any delays in construction. I understand that the land can’t forever be an archaeological site, but a small delay just to be able to transport the finds safely seems reasonable.

 
Comment by Drue
2014-05-29 15:09:34

I was wondering how they can tell that it didn’t last long before collapse?

 
Comment by dearieme
2014-05-29 18:54:05

Building on sand – not Christians, then.

 
Comment by Finarfin
2014-05-30 12:49:36

Well said. ;)

In all seriousness though, they certainly were not building anything elaborate in the 2nd century. Eusebius copied a letter from the Christians of Gaul, which he said dated to the second half of the 2nd century AD. It gives quite a vivid account of the persecutions they underwent during that period.

 
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