Roman boats discovered in Lyon

Well, it speaks for itself, when you see crafts 18 metres long and 4 metres wide. In a state of conservation, above all, particularly the one in the north, the wreck number four is extremely spectacular.

Gregoire Ayala casts an admiring eye on his discovery. Four Roman vessels from the first or second century AD are there in the sand, resting at the bottom of the large construction works for a future underground car park. Made from oak and pine from the time of Marcus Aurelius in such a fresh state that it would have you believe for a moment that these boats are ready to sail.

It has never been seen in France and it is probable that the biggest of these four boats is for the moment unique in the world.

Well it is an exceptionally fundamental discovery. There is not the equivalent in France. That puts is already, well in a class by itself. One single barge was discovered in Lyon about ten years ago, but we only recovered a tiny part. So this is a discovery that is without precedent in France, so can you find another one? You must go the lower valley of the Rhine, I believe, to find equivalents, but I believe that the most important is quite unique. Finally, as for its size…

Monsieur Ayala directs a team from the National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research. They are called to investigate building works in places where they prove themselves to be of historical interest. This was the case when it was decided to build an underground car park beside the church of St Georges on the banks of the Saone in the centre of Lyon. However, what effect did it make, when they fell on an archaeological treasure such as this one?

They found traces above, they kept going, in the end there is a procedure of investigation here that is linked to the building of the car park. So we investigate regularly in some places depending on the constraints that are imposed on us, being compatible with this construction. So for us, they have given us a place to go down, well, we are always very careful with a discovery of wood, we have already found a boat from the eighteenth century, so of course now as soon as we saw this piece of wood, we were extremely careful, that was the case from the first piece of wood from the boat from the middle that you see there and that we call boat two. And this one, we verified that there were nails, so bit by bit, we dug out around it and then we found the boat three and then after we left for the other side and recovered the boat four and afterwards the boat five. We made investigations a little bit to the north then stopped. Happily for the archaeologists because already they have enough to do with this entire flotilla that we have just got out.

Can we have a good idea of the age of these boats?

From the stratigraphy, that is to say, we date them. That which is above has a date, and that which is below. So we had above a riverbank of the late antiquity, let us say the third century AD, not as late as that ever, and so clearly that which was below was before. And afterwards all the material, the ceramics around, some coins, what do they do, well they confirm this dating, from the first two centuries AD, perhaps centred now on the second century AD.

And will they get to a more accurate estimate?

With wood, the absolute date is obtained by studying the growth rings in the wood.

That is all, a team that works side by side with the workers at the car park who look as proud of their discovery as the specialists.

There are six archaeologists, there are labourers, diggers, machine operators, etc.

Well, I am a goemorphologist so I am busy with the sediments and understanding how they were put in place and their relationship to the human occupation already there, so here we are right in the middle of the river area. We are at the end of the Saone so take away the layers of sand to understand how the bank of the Saone was formed and on which people had just settled, so understanding what type of current, so if we are in sand, when we are in gravel for example, we can say that the Saone was flowing at this place, it is what we call the load in the river bed. The sands settle, they form banks on which people settle.
Well for the moment we see that the boats were deposited on the bank and had taken up the shape of the bank, afterwards in their position they became loaded with sand after a flood and they were deformed because of the weight of the water that happened on the part closest to the river channel. So, now we try to understand if they ran aground, if the boats were carried there by the flood, or if they were moored in a port and that they were abandoned more or less. We try to understand the context in which they were there and where we found them again today.
Oh well, it is teamwork and we work with collaborators, university professors or CNRS. We talk and we try to make theories comparing at the same time the theories purely archaeological with the theories purely sedimentary and try to put all that together.

Marc, did you say that it would be finished this evening?
Didn’t we say that it would be finished?
Did I misunderstand that number five would be taken out?
By the end of the week, the number six. Did we say that?
Ah, I had understood this evening.
None, this evening, oh, what’s that?
Ah, we must because it is like that?
Is that possible?
Today and tomorrow we must do the 3D drawings Marcus – eh.

There is a kind of race against the clock we could say that’s what it is. It started four months ago, sorry one month, so we have to take account of this. We are doing preventative investigations, archaeological investigations, so we are causing a delay by our investigations. So, all delays, well, they cause extra costs.

For the moment we are working on the procedure of dismantling these craft because there is a natural deterioration that those barges there, these boats as we call them, takes place since they were released a month ago. We are going to dust them, we are going to free them, we are going to take them away. Then, this one here for example, the most important one is 30 tons, so we cannot take them away piece by piece, so we are going to cut them out in sections. And then to transport them, we move them with cranes and then by road transport, maybe a wide load, we will see, and we transport them to the Arc Nuclear Laboratory in Grenoble which will be working on the restoration. So, hopefully this will be a good time, but this summer there would have been an enormous problem of conservation with the heat wave which we experienced.

We still have to try to unravel the story around the discovery. First of all, the place:

The area has been marked by a modern port. Was this port built on the site of an earlier one, a medieval port which itself inherited an ancient creation? Well we could possibly opt for the existence of an ancient port, but we are on the banks of the Saone, a Saone which at that time was not channeled. So we have a landscape, an natural environment which was scarcely favourable to a port area, such as we conceive it. So, would we not have simply a landing place which served for a short time, a wharf which served from time to time.

These big boats surely had had important cargoes, so we guess on a use in construction.

Lyon, then Lugdunum, in the first century, second century had the importance of a capital city, this barge was built and the time of Hadrien was very important in construction, so perhaps construction materials, but we must not exclude anything, that is an area which exceeds our competence finally, the limit of our archaeological observations and let us say that for the moment, no indicator allows us to deduce the nature of the cargoes which were transported in these barges.

Even if scientific rigour does not allow for fantasy, the non-specialists have the right to dream, and it is true that at the time there was an enormous amount of construction.

A knot of communications so road transport, river transport as well, then the status of a capital city with a parade of monuments, also the amphitheatre, also the crypt with the temple of Rome and Augustus above us on the hill of Fourvière.

On the building site, we see sadly, that the biggest of the boats has been severed during the casting of an earlier concrete wall at the start of the building works. Monsieur Ayala is philosphical:

We are part of the construction of the car park, however that started before the arrival of the archeologists by this wall which surrounds the whole car park and which has the effect like a knife on all the structures, at all levels. Well, if there had not been a car park, there would not have been a archaeological investigation and in fact there is a car park and this wall limited the arrival of the water of the Saone then the water table so we could do our diggings in dry land.

That’s a good thing, we dig in dry land for the crafts which in theory could have become covered in water again.

For the general public, the discovery of these boats is spectacular news. But the professionals are so involved in a wider perspective of their work that they view these objects like that of a parent for a very talented child. They can admire it but they must not forget the others.

Yes, that it what I discovered was most important. But for the archeologist it is not so much the object which is important, it is understanding of the site for which they have given him responsibility. So, once I have done the dig, then on the last day of digging, I say to myself, well, you have understood your site, you are going to be able to publish all the information about it, that is the best for me, it is the best compensation for having delivered the project, for the effort during the dig.

You know the essential thing about our work is not so much discovering the boats, but it is publishing the story of the area of our investigations so all the information which converges in making this story is quite moving.

I have been involved in most of the works on the peninsula of Lyon since 1985 so that it has been discovering how, when there were traces of the Rhone and of the Saone because we are in a city of confluence and in fact we see for ourselves that the city was very different at the beginning of the conquest of Gaul and notably that the Rhone was very powerful and people had built right in the arms in the peninsula and had just joined again the Saone in this area before the beginning of our time, so there you see why the Roman colony came down into the peninsula only once they had been able to stabilise all the ancients river channels, especially those of the Rhone. So, it stabilised them with retaining walls and with embankments. It raised them up at the same time as taking advantage of an improvement in the climate which had the effect that the Rhone was less, less, I would say, intrusive on the right bank. And it is like that that we are able to make the connection between the strong settlement on the hill and the beginning of the colonisation of the lower lands, or the flood plains, at the time because man was mixed up in it, and at the time the Rhone was less powerful.

Is it going to take a few weeks more to get the boats out?

I think I shall be celebrating Christmas with them!

But if you do not have a chance to pass in front of the works, you are going to have to be patient to see them again:

Count on a dozen years or so. It takes a long time to restore them, yes it would be let’s see at the end of my working life before I retire. I hope to see them exhibited in a museum or a building, to see them restored somewhere. Because it is quite, it is, it is more than a dig, it is a sort of exceptional adventure.

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