Saintes Day

This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.

Stage 1: The arch. On its own.

The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE,  originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.

The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus. 

Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.

Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.

As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.

Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.

But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.

Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.

Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.

And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.

From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.

The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.

This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.

Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.

When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…

Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.

Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.

These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).

There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),

with its retaining wall, with these large niches.

A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.

Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.

Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!

It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post.  Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.

So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.

I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.

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The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Germanicus

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Archaeology at high speed

Visiting the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, I made my usual mistake; spending and hour-and-a-half in the Roman galleries and only then twigging that there are about another six galleries to see plus a temporary exhibition *eyes-roll*.

In this case, the temporary exhibition in question was ‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ (trans: ‘High-speed archaeology at high speed: 50 sites searched between Tours and Bordeaux’) an exhibition which takes in 400,000 years of human activity along the new 340km long high-speed rail route, the “Sud Europe Atlantique”.

The exhibition is very much about the archaeology and the processes of investigation, with artefacts used to illustrate points along the way and to tell the stories of the people living in this region of France away from the main known archaeological sites. Covering such a huge time period could result in a scattergun approach but concentrating on the process of archaeology, and the work of the archaeologists gives the exhibition structure and following the rail line provides the ‘why?’ for the exhibition, as well as giving us a thread to follow.

This reminded me very much of the excellent Crossrail exhibition presented by the Museum of London (and MOLA and Crossrail) in London last year. The major engineering works are the rationale for the excavations with the archaeology uncovered being the main focus of the exhibition. Of course, Crossrail took us through mostly urban and industrial sites whereas the Sud Europe Atlantique takes us through swathes of countryside where there has been little or no urban development, as well as rural settlement sites.

The exhibition includes films from the excavations and some pretty nifty interactive screens where we can see into tunnels and 360° around inside sites. I liked the way that the screen view was also projected onto the walls.

There are sections on sites representing different time periods from the paleolithic to the modern, with models showing how the sites may have looked, with interpretations based on things like visible wall-lines, the positions of post-holes, pits, wells, and so on. The finds on display range from whole burials, through to pottery, incised gems, stone tools, coins, part of a Roman pulley (my favourite) and a mystery object (the last 2 images below), listed as “objet indetermine (antiquite)”. It’s ~6-7cm long). Know what it is? Answers on a postcard to Musee d’Aquitaine.

Speaking of site models, the exhibition also included these stunningly realistic models of life on a construction/excavation site.

Every details is accurate, careful excavation of articulated skeletons,

site photography,

section drawing and plotting points using a dumpy level,

 

the finds tent,

and more.

There’s even a naughty-but-cute Site Dog.

‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ closes on 4th March 2018.

2017 and all that

Some of you, if you are Facebookies, may have been inundated with ‘Year in Review’ videos which are, frankly, rubbish. Facebook is crap at picking the images that tell the story of your year and always end up with old, reposted pictures, your ex who just dumped you or that one from where you saw an old mattress dumped in the street. The only way to do it is to chose your own images and tell it your own way. So here’s mine.

Around the world

In 2017 I’ve mostly been interested in Northern Europe. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it was. So, here’s a whistlestop tour through my whistlestop tours.

Boom!! Cologne

Bang!! Paris

Wowee!! Rome, with The Couple Formerly Known As Trowelsworthy (TCFKAT).

Kablammo!! Orvieto

  

Crash!! Mainz

 

Kapow!! Bad Durkheim

Badabing!! Frankfurt

Bazinga!! Bavay

Wow!! Paris (again). Thanks for the cheapo tickets Eurostar.

Bang!! Senlis

Crash!! Leiden

 

Whoopee!! Amsterdam

Other places are available.

Tourists at home

It’s fantastic to visit far, or not so far away places, but home is best and being a tourist in your own home is great fun. On many of my touristic days out, Craig has been my travelling companion but I started the year, in traditional style, at the Twelfth Night celebrations on Bankside.

Then nose-hunting with Craig

And I also visited the London Lumiere with Pete and Dayna.

Me and Craig went to Freemason’s Hall.

And to the ‘Glad to be Gay: the struggle for legal equality’ exhibition at LSE. This celebrated 50 year since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

The City of London Police Museum.

 

We went to Banqueting House for ‘Long Live Queen James’, an evening exploring LGBT stories from the court of King James I/VI.

And we had a poke around the restoration works at Ally Pally.

 

The Supreme Court, with Jeremy

I went to Highgate Cemetery with Sacha and Stuart.

And with Craig and Jeremy to the London Transport Museum.

(“Exchange stations shewn thus”)

Plus loads more. Seriously, London is very cool. Go and look at it.

Moosic, moosic, moosic

There have been some stonking gigs this year. This isn’t all of them, but it is some of them. How many can you name?*

 

Random Romans

There are always more Romans about, so I went to have a look for some. I popped up for a quick visit to Newcastle and Carlisle to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions.

 

I went to Hull! I’ve never been to Hull before but they have a fantastic Roman mosaic collection so I decided to make the effort and go and have a look. Well worth it.

I managed a couple of short trips up to Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking in Bothwellhaugh Roman bathhouse in Strathclyde Country Park with Ellen and Simon,

 

the bathouse and Antonine Wall remains at Bearsden,

and finally made it to Eagle Rock at Cramond.

 

Back in town, the eagerly awaited opening of the London Mithraeum didn’t disappoint.

When I was in Germany, I popped down to Speyer to see the Roman Collection at  Das Historische Museum der Pfalz (The Historical Museum of the Palatinate).

What else? What else? Volunteering on a schools’ project at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive (Me! Working with children!!), and I spent half the year working at Tower Bridge (actual paid employment!). This is surely enough to pack into 12 short months.

So that’s 2017 from me, and from my boys, Archie and Bertie. I hope you’ve had a good year and roll on 2018.

 

Oh, and here’s that one from where I saw an old mattress dumped in the street.

Senlis – Into the woods

Ok, I didn’t actually go into the woods. It was raining, I had a cold, it’s about 4 miles away and there’s no regular bus, plus I needed to catch the 3.15 bus in order to get back to Paris. So no, I didn’t actually go into the woods. But I did go into the museum, which is just as good, because in the museum is this:

So what’s the deal with the woods then? Well, in 1825, in the Foret d’Halatte, a temple was discovered.

Early investigations in 1873-4 uncovered the general size and shape of the small temple and precinct, and also recovered 297 stone ex-voto figures, and statues, now in the collection of the Musee d’arte et d’archaeologie.

Built in the mid-1st century, on what was then grassland, and abandoned by the early 5th, the temple was lost to view as the forest grew and established itself. As many of the ex-voto figures display genitals or breasts, the temple has been interpreted as a temple of healing, possibly with a focus on sexual health, conception and pregnancy.

This incomplete statue is of a female figure who appears to be pregnant. Maybe she is some sort of protective mother-goddess.

And there are numerous infant figures, so perhaps supplicants went to the temple to ask the gods for safe deliveries and to protect their babies from childhood diseases, the need for protection being more keenly felt during times of high infant mortality.

There are even animal figures. Perhaps these gods were thought to have the power to ensure healthy livestock and crops as well as protecting the human population.

During excavations in 1996-9, a further 66 ex-voto figures were discovered, as well as a deposit consisting of a pot and the skull of a ~40 year old man buried under the floor of the cela, the inner sanctum. This has been interpreted as a possible foundation deposit, drawing on ancient tribal customs even well into the Gallo-Roman period.

Also found in the cela were the seven gallic coins in the image above. The deposition of coins in sacred spaces  is not unusual. The copper-alloy votive objects (below), several of them phallic or otherwise relating to reproduction, sexual organs or child-rearing, were also found at the site.

Although the museum is home to archaeological collections and art collections, I’m afraid that I spent so much time in the basement looking at the temple archive that I hardly had time to do much else, but I would still encourage a visit to the museum at Senlis the next time you’re in the area. It’s an easy trip from Paris, although you do need to check the bus times to and from the nearest train station at Chantilly.

Link: www.persee.fr/doc/pica_1272-6117_2000_hos_18_1_2479 (in French)

The great aqueduct of Paris

With that blog title I might be overegging this a bit, so let’s just call it ‘the once fairly big aqueduct of Paris’ instead.

Paris’ Roman remains are a bit hit and miss. Of ‘hits’, there’s the fabulous bathhouse at Cluny, there’s the amphitheatre, and there are the archaeological remains in the Crypte archéologique on the l’île de la Cité. Of misses, there are many; the city walls now seem to consist of a little chunk in a carpark stairwell and the odd bump in the road and, other than in the aforementioned Crypt, there are no houses to be seen, nothing that looks military, and there’s precious little left, structurally, to do with the trade coming into the city. And then there’s the aqueduct.

Any self respecting Roman town had to have an aqueduct, of some sort, to bring the water for all the public baths and drinking fountains, meeting the needs of the Roman ‘metropolitan elite’. So where is the aqueduct of the Parisii?

Well, Lutetia Parisiorum did indeed have an aqueduct. One which covered the 26 or so kms from Wissous (near Paris Orly Airport) to Paris. Built in the 1st c, CE, this aqueduct had a capacity of about 2.000 m3/day, water which fed public fountains, some private houses and, of course, the grand baths at Cluny. Rediscovered in 1903 by Eugène Belgrand and excavated by Louis Tesson, the collecting basin into which the sources fed was uncovered and then covered up again so it isn’t possible to see that. But, on its was to Paris, the aqueduct crossed the La Bièvre river by means of a bridge, a few scraps of which remain.

Near Arcueil-Cachan station on RER line B…

No, not the big obvious structure, cutting its way through the valley. That’s part of the two later aqueducts that run along the same route as the Roman one. Here we can just see the 1860 Arcueil/Bertrand Aqueduct which sits on top of the lower piers of the 1620 ‘Medicis’ aqueduct. No, I was looking for these scant remains.

Can you see them? Yes? No?

How’s this?

And here’s another little bit sticking up over the top of the buildings that were built up against the later aqueducts.

It’s not much, and a bit squashed in between all the later construction, but there it is, the aqueduct of Lutetia.

A couple of miles further north in the ZAC Alésia-Montsouris area off the Avenue de la Sibelle, another stretch of the aqueduct was uncovered  in the year 2000 during building works and, after some ‘debate’, the decision was taken to preserve a few vestiges of it in the new public garden and playground and in the basements of some new flats. There isn’t a huge amount to see, just a few bits and bobs dotted around, but it became a bit of a challenge to try and find as many bits as I could. So here they are:

There’s even this, frankly rather random chunk stuck in a wall niche alongside the park.

So there you are. They’re not obvious and they’re certainly not pretty and finding them involves tramping round some fairly unremarkable blocks of flats. But I went looking for an aqueduct and found three. However, without the bloggy assistance of www.romanaqueducts.info, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have found any of them at all.

 

 

 

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

Bingo!

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

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

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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’.

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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This is how it works.

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Cool huh?