Under 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.
It 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 blocks 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.
Archaeologists 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.
There 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.
Not 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.