Saturday, October 13, 2012

Roman holiday

La Villa de SéviacAfter several days of closed-for-lunch signs and indoor diversions from rain, we finally scored entry to both the Èauze archaeological museum and the Villa at Séviac.

Modern-day Éauze, itself about a thousand years old, sits on the site of the older Roman town of Elusa from the 3rd-7th centuries. In 1985  someone dug up a few bags of coins – the largest ever found in France, some 28 thousand of them. The more recently built museum Le Trésor d’Eauze has reassembled other artefacts from the area which had dribbled out to other collections and housed them with this new treasure. Fittingly the new museum is an old bank building and the numismatique is in the underground strong-hold.

I’d love to show you some photos but cameras are not allowed, and there are no official sites for the museum which give you anything more than its address. Even the town’s official site offers no more than a triply buried menu item that goes nowhere, and the tourist site makes no mention of the museum at all!  Rather amazing when you consider what lies therein. You can find a few photos on the Archaeology Travel portal. As a tip for guests, the four floors of the smallish museum are labelled in French only, but you can get a rather good explanatory folder in English to carry around. This however only covers the ground floor’s collection of  prehistoric and early-Roman artefacts. The main coin and jewellery collection below required rather more technical French than either Steph or I possessed so I had to consult my phone’s dictionary frequently. Upstairs there are some smaller, less interesting displays on construction and wine-making in the area. These are mostly information boards with a handful of actual display objects, and again the specialized language needed to read it all made it too much of a chore.

Downstairs, the coins are laid out thematically around the strong-room, the sheer quantity making me think someone had dug up the change machine from a third-century laundromat. There are some featured pieces of jewellery incorporating sapphires, emeralds and garnets. Since the technology to cut precious stones to reveal brilliant facets is a relatively modern development, any Hollywood film you see of this era with sparkly necklaces and earrings belies the truth that they were principally dull coloured stones. Finally there were also some small iron knives with elaborate ivory handles in the form of a lion’s head or the god Bacchus.
La Villa de Séviac - panorama
Steph kindly treated Gustav and me to discounted double-tickets to the museum which included access to the Villa at Seviac. The visits don’t have to be done in the same day, but it’s a short hop to Montreal-du-Gers from Èauze, and the sun was holding out for us.

The luxury Roman residence dates from approximately the same period as Elusa and was possibly active in one form or another for about 4-500 years. It would certainly be very popular due to the large thermal bath complex to the left of the central courtyard. The rooves you see are modern constructions to protect the excavations, especially the colourful tiles found throughout.

As with the museum, we were given a binder of English notes to guide us around the complex. These were quite good and covered everything except the garden displays next to the baths.

La Villa de Séviac - baths
There were so many different types of pools, hot and cold, that it made me wonder how many slaves it took to tend to their needs in respect of water-supply, cleaning and heating. The design is also interesting as the tile patterns on the bottom of the pools are sometimes fore-shortened to give a false sense of perspective, and therefore making them seem longer.
La Villa de Séviac - baths (2)
sample of the English notes, in Comic Sans!The villa seems to have been abandoned around the end of the 700s and then raided for building materials. Inevitably the passage of time buried what was left under fields until rediscovery in the 1860s. Evenso it was not until 1959 when the site began to be properly excavated over the course of many decades. Obviously a properly-motivated malamute could have turned over the site in a matter of weeks, but archaeologists have been slow to harness their ability to not only dig, but then to roll around on their backs and dust everything off with their fluffy coat and tail.

La Villa de Séviac - Steph inspects baths
The tourist brochure for the villa does list an official website, but since it’s been abandoned to a Japanese shopping site, I won’t link to it. Someone has thoughtfully backed up the original site here.

Rather amusingly the Association de Sauvegarde des Monuments et Sites de l'Armagnac (Association for safeguarding the monuments and sites of the Armagnac) is translated by Google as the Association of Backup Sites… which made me ACTUALOL given how slack the regional government bodies are with presenting and maintaining this material.Villa de Seviac - this season's tile range
Steph & Munson at cheese o'clock
We covered both venues in about three hours, returning to Munson for an extended cheese o’clock snack session with quite a range of cheeses, dried sausage, fig jam, armagnac and other local delicacies. We may not have all the luxuries of our early Roman neighbours but we can still feast like Gascons.

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