Where all roads meet

Well, maybe not ‘all’ but 7, in any case.

From the area map at the bus stop.

This is Bavay, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, close to the France-Belgium border. A sleepy little village that isn’t really on the way to or from anywhere. But 2000 years ago, Bavay was on the way to loads of places.

Bavay, or Bagacum in the 1st century CE, was the tribal capital or civitas of the powerful Nervii tribe.  Seven major routes passed through Bagacum so it grew into an important site for trading, administration, law courts and the military. Its situation on the road from Boulogne (Roman Gesoriacum) to Cologne (Roman Colonia  Agrippinensis) made it a key stopping off point between the Roman provinces of Germania and Britannia.

The site was known about in the eighteenth century as chance finds and unofficial digs turned up many Roman objects, but the site was really uncovered due to heavy bombing during WW2. The post-war excavations revealed a huge Gallo-Roman forum basilica, the largest outside Italy, measuring 200m by 120m.

In the Claudian period, the town flourished and grew rapidly, with the construction of civic buildings like the forum, the basilica, public bathhouses fed by aqueducts and temples being built and beautified. The town was an important centre for the production of pottery goods and traded in, in particular, bronze-working, and was a key staging post during the conquest of Britain.

I’d been wanting to get to Bavay for a little while and had pondered making my way over there when I was staying in Belgium last year, but it’s a faff to get to on public transport and a lot of routes take absolutely hours to get there. It’s not a natural stopping off point on the way to or from anywhere in particular so this time I decided that I’d just make it the be all and end all of a visit. The easiest route was London > Lille, Lille > Valenciennes, Valenciennes > Bavay, so, timetables checked, I was off.

By the time I got to Bavay it was pouring with rain, and I’d left my umbrella in London. Oh well. There’s a museum to visit at the site, so I started there, hoping that the rain would ease off a bit.

(cue museum break)

By the time I left the museum not only had it stopped raining, but it was scorching hot; cracking flags! My stroll around the site was, therefore, a slow and lazy one. A lot of the better preserved sections seem to have been buried in the building of the later ramparts, hence the excellent state of preservation.

At one end of the site there are the remains of a cryptoporticus; a covered storage area below ground level.

Much of the site has been turfed over but here and there, there are still little patches of the Roman paving. There’s even the odd wheel-rut.

The fortunes and function of the city began to changes in the third-century, when it served as a post for regional defence, and around the turn of the fourth century, the ramparts and city walls were constructed.

Getting to Bavay without a car was a bit of a schlep but it was worth it, as it’s a really interesting site with a great museum. As I had to pass through Valenciennes and Lille to get there, I made a point of visiting a few other places on the way, including the Musee des Beaux Art, Valenciennes and Lille Cathedral, so all in all this made for a great little trip.


The Aqueduct of Nîmes


Yes, it’s big.

‘It’ is the Pont du Gard, the tallest surviving aqueduct in the Roman world, a World Heritage Site and one of the key visitor attractions in the Languedoc. As I was staying in Nîmes , about 20km a way, I took the early morning bus out to the Pont du Gard for a look. Now, apparently, you’re supposed to pay to get in, but when I got there, although the site of the bridge/aqueduct is freely accessible, not another thing was open. No ticket office, no information centre, no shop, no cafe (it was pretty early).

Anyway, I decided to have a good wander round the site and then go back to see about buying a ticket and visiting the museum space later.

The Pont du Gard forms a part of the ~50km long aqueduct which the Romans built to bring water from the  source, the springs of the Fontaine d’Eure near Uzès, to the Roman city of Nemausus, modern Nîmes. The current structure actually consists of the Roman bridge and aqueduct, built in three tiers with the water channel running along the top tier, and an affixed 18th century road bridge (which is now a footbridge).


Taking a proper look at the structure is worth the effort, as it is covered in evidence for its construction, medieval and post-medieval repairs and alterations, and of the later 18th century works.

First the Romans. The total height is about 50m, reflecting the height of the steep-sided river valley of the Gardon river. The arches that make up the tiers are unevenly-sized, as the architect seems to have been building the structure as economically (in terms of time and materials) as possible.


Most of the structure is built in grand appareil, basically big stones, some weighing as much as 6 tons, without mortar. The upper channel for the water (in the images below) was made from petit appareil, small stones, with mortar and lined with ‘malthe’, a waterproof plaster.

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A lot of the stones are only roughly finished on the faces, possibly to cut down on the workload and so speed up construction.


The structure is also peppered with these projecting stones, which were used as supports for scaffolding during construction and repairs.


It also has these pointed ‘cutwaters’ on each of the piers of the lowest tier. They work like the prow of a boat and help to protect the piers from the strong currents, especially in the winter.


During construction, stone blocks were quarried and roughly finished in the nearby quarries and then brought to the site for assembly. Evidence for elements of pre-fabrication is visible, especially in the voisseurs used to construct the arches on the second tier. Individual wedge-shaped stones were cut in order to produce the appropriately-sized arch but these then had to be fitted together in the correct sequence on site. So the Roman builders numbered the stones.

Some just simply numbered I, II, III, IV etc


Some with more specific ‘FR’ – ‘Frons’, front; ‘D’ – ‘Dextra’, right; ‘S’ – ‘Sinestra’, left, etc.


There is also a tantalising grafitti tag on the Pont, the name ‘VERANIUS’.


It’s faint, but it’s there. In his guide to the Roman remains of Southern France, James Bromwich wonders whether this could be evidence of a construction worker taking his shot at immortality, or even the name of the architect.

Later repairs can be seen throughout the structure. I can’t date all the individual bits of repair, but some of the stones, especially voisseurs, are clearly newer, even as new as the most recent repairs carried out on the late ’90s/early 00s. And there is plenty of other evidence for the 18th and 19th century repairs and alterations. The 18th century section especially is covered in etched graffiti left by masons, showing the tools of their trade; hammers, compasses etc. Some of it is quite detailed and ornate (there is also some of this graffiti on the Roman structure).

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Now I don’t really approve of graffiti, but it can sometimes prove a valuable source of information. Here we see names, dates and information about the guilds of mason who repaired the Roman structure and built the 18th century one.

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Climbing up the embankment on the east bank, you get this fantastic view.


And following the trail along the valley, I came across another chunk of the aqueduct preserved a few hundred metres from the main attraction.


And a close-up of the water channel at the top.


When I was finally driven back to the museum area by the cold, I tried to buy a ticket from the ticket machine AND the Information Office, but was actually told that I didn’t need a ticket (I’m so confused about this but, hey ho, I tried), so I just went into the museum for a look around.

It’s called a museum, but it’s actually more of an exhibition space. there aren’t any real artefacts, but lots of facsimiles and models to demonstrate how the structure was built, its route and how it actually works, some specific features and the history of the site. You could easily spend an  hour or so in there as there’s a lot to look at whether you’re interested in construction techniques, hydrology, engineering. Or if you’re interest is in the historical responses to the structure, there’s an excellent collection of drawings and other images, and even the history of the site as a tourist attraction.

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I had intended to catch the bus to Avignon for the afternoon, but my usual comedy of errors caused me to miss it, so I decided to go back to the Pont to see if I could find some other features that had been eluding me.


In the centre top of the largest arch is this figure.


Ok, it’s a bit tricky to make it out, so here’s the cast from the exhibition centre.


It’s a figure who appears to be carrying out some kind of work. Perhaps a stonemason or quarryman.

I also managed to spot the ‘Pont du Gard Hare’.


Now, any of you who has been hanging out around Romans for any time will twig that this is one of those bizarre phalluses. You know, the ones with wings or noses, chicken legs and small animals riding on their backs. All that malarky. We can giggle and roll our eyes at those funny old Romans but in the past, to spare the ladies’ blushes (?), it was described as an image of a hare. One Federico Mistral even told of a legend in which a man tricked the devil with the use of this hare.

It’s a Roman willy (again, this is the cast from the exhibition).


And so is this (even if it does look like a spanner).


Romans *eyes roll*.

Well although Avignon would have been nice, I was very glad that I’d stayed. In the end, I had about another 3 hours on site, but even that hardly seemed enough! A second comedy of errors meant that I had to walk to the next town, Remoulins, to catch the last bus back to Nimes, but it all ended well and I would say that this was a very successful trip. I believe that there were more inscriptions that I didn’t get to see, but the site would repay another visit, perhaps in warmer weather.

As a little post script, I visited the site in Nîmes where the aqueduct ends.


It’s called the Castellum Divisorium and it’s basically a large circular basin into which the water from the aqueduct empties. There are holes in the side of the basin where the lead pipes which carried the water to other parts of the city were attached.


This is how it works.


Cool huh?

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.