A photo-illustrated look at the origins of Lyon, which was founded in 43 BC during the Roman Empire. Recent excavation work has uncovered a residential area in what was the center of the city.
Situated in what was Gaul – France - and conquered by Julius Caesar between 58 and 53 BC, Lyon was born with the name Lugdunum, after the Gaulish word ‘dunum’ which meant ‘hill fort’, in 43 BC on the summit of the Fourvière heights. The Romans were not the first people to live here, though, as there is evidence of pre-Gallic community activity which goes back as far as the Neolithic era. Lugdunum’s first inhabitants were members of a group of Roman refugees who had been forced to leave Vienne, a town 30km south.
The choice of the site was made by Roman Consul Lucius Munatius Plancus and it was probably chosen because of its strategic position overlooking the surrounding countryside in what was a turbulent and violent era of Ancient Roman history. Julius Caesar was assassinated the next year.
Lugdunum continued to grow and prosper for over 300 years and its initial population of a few hundred souls grew substantially to many thousands. The city eventually became the Administrative capital of Gaul and Germany.
Little by little however, various religious and political upheavals and battles began to weaken the Roman Empire’s hold over the whole of Gaul. The once-prosperous town fell into decline and lost its former importance until its fortunes were reversed after the end of the Empire.
The next 2000 years witnessed the slow burial of Lugdunum’s remains as a result of many generations of construction and almost all traces of it were lost until concentrated efforts were made to rediscover the city’s origins over 50 years ago. Fourvière became a classified site and all remains found during construction work are now reported to local authorities by law. The authorities mandate archaeologists to explore them and some are maintained whereas others are subsequently reburied.
Enter Jules Ramona, an archaeologist with Swiss-based archaeological specialists Archeodunum. He was one of the people entrusted with the exploration of a Roman site which was accidentally found during foundation excavation for a building project on the site of what is now a hospital, and he began working on the site in June of this year.
He and his colleagues have unearthed a whole neighborhood near what was the centre of the city and he described what can be seen from the top to the bottom of the overview photo below which shows a part of one street. Note the remains of a shop or home at mid-height-left in which the earthen floor has a much darker, reddish color than the others.
“At the top edge there is a path which steps down to a road wide enough for two-lane chariot travel, that is to say about 10 to 12 meters" explains Jules. "Then there’s another path and towards the bottom there are the remains of houses and shops in what used to be a busy part of the city. The buildings were often two stories high, with living quarters upstairs from the shops.”
An overview of a Roman street with shops and housing, Lyon France
There was a waste water evacuation trench under one of the paths, and it can be seen here during work to clear it. In the background can be seen the modern-day ground level, which is over one-and-a-half meters higher than it was at the time.
Workers uncovering a Roman neighborhood, Lyon France
We came to an ornamental water pool, and I was surprised to see that it had what looked very much like a concrete lining. “It is a kind of concrete, but it’s an early kind” said Jules. “It is a type of mortar consisting of a mix of water, sand and stones, which was also used to line the walls of buildings, the lower parties of which were made of stone, with a kind of packed mud higher up and then wood.”
Communal water pool, Roman neighborhood, Lyon France
The water for the pool most probably came from this well, the edge of which is inaccessible to visitors as it is deep. In fact the bottom “could be as deep as 40 meters down” according to Jules, but they haven’t got that far yet.
Then disaster struck the city in the form of a major fire, which destroyed many buildings. They were broken down to what could still be used and then rebuilt. “We know there was a fire because of the color of some of the stone in the walls. Stone that was exposed to severe heat took on a reddish color which is still to be seen. That means that we can see which parts of the neighborhood existed before the fire and which were built, or rebuilt, afterwards.”
This also explains the reddish floor in the first photo, which indicates that that property was severely damaged whilst the others to the right of it escaped relatively unscathed.
The builders needed clay to rebuild with, and they obtained it from craters which they dug behind the main street.
“The craters were then filled in with unusable remains from the original buildings such as smaller stones and fragments of mortar. Some of this debris can be seen embedded in the walls of the craters.”
In the background can be seen the lower part of the enormous mound of earth and debris cleared away by workmen in order to uncover the site.
The complexity of the buildings is clearly visible below. “This part of the neighborhood is a good illustration of the fact that it was built on a fairly steep slope. The walls on the right are more or less complete, but to the left, higher up, there are remains of walls which of course went up much higher than those below. This neighborhood was built as a series of steps, or terraces.”
It began to rain as I left the site and I tried to imagine how this community would have spent its time indoors waiting for rain to stop on a similarly grey and dull afternoon 2000 years ago. No electricity, no Internet, no TV.
And the thought came to me that they would never have foreseen that all those years later, an archaeologist would say to someone, me as it happens, “It’s very sad in a way. When the dig is over and we’ve finished uncovering and documenting everything, these remains will be destroyed forever by the work needed to build the foundations of a new building, and it’ll all be over.”
It was a very humbling experience to be one of the last people ever to see this tiny slice of human endeavor and history.
(Those interested may like to read an illustrated article here on Digital Journal concerning the Roman Theatre at Fourvière, Lyon, which has been almost completely refurbished and is now in use as an international artistic events venue.)