The Elysian Fields

Les Alyscamps is the necropolis of Roman Arles; situated outside the city walls along the Via Aurelia, the main road leading out of the city. The road was lined with tombs and mausolea and was the city’s main burial ground for almost 1500 years. After the Roman period, the necropolis continued to be used and became important in the early Christian era as the Roman Christian martyr,  Saint Genesius and the first bishops of Arles, including Saint Trophimus, were buried there.

So, on a freezing December morning, I went to have a look  at the remaining section of this famous necropolis, l’Allee des Tombeaux, (the avenue of tombs).


The first tomb belongs to (might belong to, I’m not 100% sure) the 15th century Romieu family.

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The tomb is full of Romanesque details.

Further into the necropolis, I started to encounter the neatly placed rows of sarcophogai, many Roman, but also later ones. The 3rd century Saint Trophimus’ remains were originally interred here and the story goes that Christ himself attended Saint Trophinus’ funeral and that the imprint of his knee could be seen on a sarcophagus lid (although whet Jesus would be doing kneeling on sarcophogai is anyone’s guess). By the late 10th century, the relics had been moved to a new site and by 1152, a new (then) cathedral had been dedicated in the centre of town.


This burial ground was where the well-off of Arletan, as well as the not so well off, were interred, so there were a great many fine sarcophogai and inscriptions found here. Many of the best sarcophogai are now in the archaeological museum (here are a couple of examples)



but walking along the road through the necropolis is still a moving experience and there is plenty to see.


Among the remaining sarcophogai, quite a few are decorated with insignia denoting the trade of the deceased person. The key theme here is stoneworking, and many of the people well-off enough to have fine carved sarcophogai were stone masons.



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What we see are images of the tools of the trade.

A square


A plumb-bob

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An axe


And an axe and a mallet



This carved stone, probably the lintel of a tomb and now in the Archaeological Museum, has a full range of tools, including what looks like a chisel.


Other carved elements on the sarcophagai include these fantastic carved heads

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And I’m trying to work out if these two are images of the Master Mason at work (answers on a postcard please).

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At the end of this surviving section of the necropolis is the partially runied Church of Saint-Honoratus, Archbishop of Arles (died 429CE).


The dark and marvellously atmospheric space is the place to look out for details that you might not notice at first.

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I’ve never seen so many mason’s marks together in one place. Either lots of masons were being paid for the work, or perhaps they all wanted their own mark to be seen at this important and holy site.

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And I’ve no idea what this ‘pecking’ up in the vaulting signifies.


In one of the side chapels are some giant pottery sherds. Fragments of large amphorae.



This one seems to have had a very neat internal base fitted. No idea why (again, answers on a postcard)


So, if you are planning to make the trip to Arles, under no circumstances should you miss this site.



2 thoughts on “The Elysian Fields

  1. M/H Mason marks could be modern? It was customary for journeyman masons to take a Grand Tour and carve their insignia in places. Lots on the Pont du Gard for instance. Oh, I once dug a roman plumb bob. The guys who carved its image got it just right!
    Le Badger

    • Hi Badger, and a Happy New UK Year to you 😀 .

      The church is medieval, but I’d guess that it continued to be used for some time. The masons marks could have been added later, but they are all over the place, even up on the ceiling, and every which way round, so some of them, at least, must have been made when the blocks were cut.
      ~Re. the Pont du Gard, I was so intent on finding the inscribed numbering and a couple of other features, that I missed the bus and had to walk to the next town to catch another one, or end up stuck 😀 It was worth it though. I’ll post some pics in a bit.
      (I’m very jealous or your Roman plumb bob)

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