An exceptional antique necropolis discovered in Narbonne

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An exceptional antique necropolis discovered in Narbonne
Archaeologists of the INRAP (the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research) search an ancient necropolis site in Narbonne, southern France, on October 7, 2019. The necropolis site is exceptional for its size - 5.000 m2 -, its state of conservation and the amount of treasures depicting the funeral rites at the time of Narbo Martius, the first Roman colony in Gaul, founded in 118 years before Christ. ERIC CABANIS / AFP.

PARIS.- At the gates of Narbonne, an Antique necropolis is currently under excavation by an Inrap team, as prescribed by the State (Drac Occitanie), prior to the construction of a Zac. Due to its importance and its exceptional state of preservation, this site is a major discovery for French archaeology and benefits from significant funding from the government (State, Occitanie region, Aude department, Grand Narbonne agglomeration, city of Narbonne) and the project developer (Alenis, Grand Narbonne development company). The archaeological site adjoins Narbo Via, an international Antiquity museum designed by « Foster+Partners » who, in 2020, will present the exceptional heritage of Antique Narbonne in an 8,000 m2 space.

Narbonne, Roman territory
At the end of the Roman conquest of 125 BC, the city of Narbonne was the first Roman colony established in Gaul. One century later, Auguste made Narbo Martius the capital of the Narbonne province, which extends from Fréjus to Toulouse and the Pyrenees, and from the Mediterranean to Vienna and Geneva. Narbonne was also a flourishing economic center during Antiquity, and one of the largest ports in the western Mediterranean, situated at a crossroads of land, river and sea routes.

Six hundred meters to the east of the Antique city, at the junction of two roads, the funerary space occupied 2,000 m2 during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Nearly 300 tombs have been found among the estimated 1000.

The necropolis
The necropolis is structured by masonry enclosures implanted according to a regular division of parcels. The parcels enable the archaeologists to discern distinct groups whose respective practices they will be able to compare. The contiguous plots, sometimes separated by service roads, display small monuments adorned with painted plaster. Plaques are sometimes affixed to the monuments. Their epitaphs document the lives of the lowest commoners (slaves or emancipated), mostly of Italian origin. They also testify to the economic prosperity of these plebian circles.

The burials are mainly cremations: there are many pyres and simple graves—often protected by a tiled covering or coffin. The graves contain burned bones placed in a container and accompanied by a glass or ceramic jugs, sometimes associated with perfume vases and lamps. These recipients testify to the importance of the offerings of liquid (wine?) and perfume in honor of the deceased. Charred fruit (including dates and figs), personal objects (personal ornaments and hygiene items) are present in the ashes of the pyres.

An exceptionally well-preserved site
The proximity of a branch of the Aude (today the Robine canal) played a major role in the exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains. The site was protected by 3 m of silt from its floods. In addition, recurring floods during Antiquity sealed the successive states of the necropolis and now enable us to observe the evolution of the funerary practices and commemorative cults.

At the heart of the funerary rituals
The state of preservation allows us, for once, to understand some of the ritual gestures; at the time of the funeral, at the stake or in the grave, as well as in the context of the memorial worship, through offerings in honor of the deceased or meals consumed in the enclosures.

Rarely attested in Gaul, libation conduits were used in one out of three graves at Narbonne. Extending above the ground, these conduits are ceramic, sometimes amphorae, driven into the tomb to get closer to the deceased. They allowed the introduction of offerings. Some still contain cups used for libations and shells. The studies of them focus on identifying the libation practices through organic chemistry analyses.

The diversity of the funerary structures, their state of preservation, and the superposition of floors and tombs make this a unique site in Gaul, which can be compared with sites in Italy, such as Pompeii and Rome. It offers a very rare opportunity to apprehend funerary practices in time and space. The Narbonne necropolis is already considered as the reference in the study of funerary practices in Roman Gaul, as well as for our knowledge of the working class in Antiquity.

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