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Archaeologists Discover a “Little Pompeii” in Eastern France

Fires in a Roman neighborhood in Sainte-Colombe helped preserve ancient homes, shops and artifacts

One of the mosaics uncovered in Sainte-Colombe (Archeodunum)
smithsonian.com

Archaeologists digging in Sainte-Colombe, a French suburb nearby the city of Vienne, have uncovered a well-preserved Roman neighborhood that they've dubbed “Little Pompeii,” reports Agence France-Presse.

According to AFP, the archaeologists began excavations at the site in April in advance of construction of a housing complex. What they uncovered was a 75,000-square-foot neighborhood dating back to the first century A.D., which they believe was inhabited for at least 300 years. The area appears to have been abandoned after catastrophic fires, with families leaving many of their belongings behind.

“We’re unbelievably lucky. This is undoubtedly the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years,” Benjamin Clement, of the firm Archeodunum and the leader of the dig, tells AFP.

Anne-Sophie Bolon and Sewell Chan at The New York Times report that archaeologists believe the neighborhood was built around the largest Roman market square found in France. So far, they have found shops dedicated to food production, metalworking and a warehouse full of wine jugs. Two homes have also been found among the ashes of the fires. One is believed to have been owned by a wealthy merchant who outfitted his villa with marble tiling, lush gardens and a water supply system.

Adjacent to the square, archaeologists uncovered a building that is believed to be a school of philosophy. The site also includes a temple where researchers found a bronze medal made in the year 191.

Clement tells Bolon and Chan that the neighborhood was struck by fire twice, once in the beginning of the second century and then in the middle of the third. The fires, it turns out, are what preserved the structures, carbonizing wooden beams and baking the bricks between them. The fire also oxidized iron objects like hinges, ax heads and doors, which normally rust away over time.

AFP reports that the mosaics are being removed for cleaning and in three years are expected to go on view at Vienne's museum of Gallo-Roman civilization. The dig was scheduled to conclude in September, but because of the significance of the finds, the researchers now have until the end of the year to examine the site.

The Vienne area has long been an archaeological hotspot. According to Livius.org, the city was founded when the Romans conquered the Gallic Allobroges tribe in 120 B.C. and resettled them on the site. After a tumultuous half century of revolts and pacification, the emperor Augustus granted Vienne the status of colonia and its inhabitants citizenship. It became a regional and cultural capital and its Roman theater, temple to Augustus and Livia and an obelisk from its arena are still tourist attractions today.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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