Archeologists dig up France’s ‘mini Pompeii,’ a Roman town frozen in time by fire

HARI SREENIVASAN: Archaeologists are racing against time to save artifacts from what is being described as the most significant find of Roman ruins in the past half-century.

They're located in Eastern France, and the discovery is being hailed as a mini Pompeii, the Roman town near Naples in Italy that was destroyed in 79 A.D. by the volcano, Mount Vesuvius.

As part of our ongoing coverage of Culture at Risk, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Two thousand years ago, this corner of what is now Eastern France was on the fringes of the Roman Empire.

The only constants over two millennia are the moon and the River Rhone with its transport links, which drew the Romans here.

In the village of Sainte-Colombe, right next to the Rhone, archaeologist Catherine Du Pinet is working to extract rusting iron armor belonging to what's believed to have been a retired Roman officer.

CATHERINE DU PINET, Archaeologist (through interpreter): It's really difficult because it's located in the remains of a shop. It's surrounded by a layer of soil, tile and brick that was burned and is really hard. This is very fragile and it's complicated to get it out.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This has been a very productive day for archaeologist Benjamin Clement, who's leading this dig.

BENJAMIN CLEMENT, Archaeologist: So, here we just found all the pieces of a huge armor of the 1st century A.D. Here, we have a little part of a belt. And this kind of decoration comes from a little belt on the front of the armor.

Here, you have all the parts of the armor, all the little pieces who come from it. We just find 10 minutes ago a little weapon, a little sword. I will just show you. If you come to see here, we have all the protections for the shoulder.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This site is being described as perhaps the most important discovery of Roman remains in the past 50 years.

Some of the artifacts apparently match the beauty of those found in Pompeii, especially the mosaic floors of houses belonging to the Roman upper classes. But the most precious ones are no longer visible. They were removed by the archaeologists before they went public about the site, because, as Culture Ministry official Marie-Agnes Gaidon-Bunuel explains, they were worried about theft.

MARIE-AGNES GAIDON-BUNUEL, Culture Ministry (through interpreter): There has been an increase in clandestine treasure hunting in France these last few years, with objects being reclaimed from archaeological sites, which we are not happy about at all.

The Minister for Culture is trying to fight against the practice, because the removal of these artifacts from their archaeological setting prevents us from dating the site, and they are being actively marketed outside of France.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But some of the more visually mundane antiquities like clay pots remain. This cluster was found in the Roman equivalent of a delicatessen.

BENJAMIN CLEMENT: Mosaics is really interesting because it's part of art. It's like a statue. But for the understanding of the way of living of Roman people, mostly for the middle-class and lower-class population, to find this structure is more interesting, because it's a chance to understand how they live and how they do for cooking, eating.

MALCOLM BRABANT: That these treasures were found at all is due to a French law that requires developers to excavate areas where the authorities are confident that antiquities may be buried just beneath the surface.

The town of Vienne and its surroundings are prime historical real estate. One of the best preserved Roman temples is situated in the heart of Vienne, and in the summer months, its citizens, many of them no doubt descendants of the Romans, dance and indulge in the age-old habit of worshipping Bacchus, the Roman God of wine and drink.

Like Pompeii, the Roman enclave at Sainte-Colombe had its own disasters, not a volcano, but a couple of infernos. Unlike Pompeii, the inhabitants here managed to escape, and as Benjamin Clement explains, fire has similar preservative qualities to volcanic ash.

BENJAMIN CLEMENT: The comparison with Pompeii comes from the fact we have two big fires which destroy all the neighborhood, the first one in the beginning of the 2nd century A.D., and the second one in the middle of the 3rd century A.D.

These huge fires preserved, froze all the structures, all the furniture, the artifacts in the houses, in the shops, in the public space. And it's exactly the same thing as in Pompeii.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Now, this site may be as significant as Pompeii, but you are not going to be able to come and see it any time soon. Within months, it's going to be covered in concrete and turned into apartment buildings and a car park.

But Roman antiquities specialist Elsa Dias from Portugal is saddened that soon this treasure will disappear from view.

ELSA DIAS, Roman Antiquities Specialist (through interpreter): It's a one-time-in-your-life opportunity to dig a place like this.

You have to be passionate to be an archaeologist. When you see the work we do, you have to be passionate. It's really physical. And we dig when it rains, when it pours. And the site, it's an exceptional site, because, in France, there is nothing like this.

Personally, I would preserve everything, but we know that in the world that we live in, it's not possible. So people have to live somewhere. Someone else is going to live here after the Romans.

(LAUGHTER)

MALCOLM BRABANT: That's history.

ELSA DIAS: Yes.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the end of the working day, as his colleagues dust down the shoulder armor, Benjamin Clement brings out the short sword that may have killed British tribesmen as the Emperor Claudius expanded the Roman Empire.

BENJAMIN CLEMENT: It's always a race against time when you are — when you make archaeological declaration before building construction, because you have to deal with other priority and not scientific or archaeological priority, and it's really hard. But it's a part of our work, and it's a part really interesting of our work.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The armor and all the other artifacts recovered from this dig will probably be displayed in a museum nearby, enriching the cultural value of Vienne.

Amongst its more unusual treasures, a pyramid that some claim was prepared as a mausoleum for Pontius Pilate, who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But, according to the team here, that is fake ancient news, a real Roman myth.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Vienne.

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