Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France

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Between mid-August and early November 2020, a team of Inrap archaeologists conducted an archaeological excavation at Alba-La-Romaine, rue de la Grande Terre upstream of a housing estate built by Rampa Realisations, on the instructions of the State (Drac Auvergne – Rhone-Alpes). 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Cremation deposit during excavation containing rich grave goods [Credit: © Inrap]




This is the fifth excavation carried out by Inrap in the Grande Terre sector since 2013, on a plot of land of around 5,000 m2. Previous operations had revealed significant occupation during Protohistory (traffic on sunken paths, ditches, remains of forges and workshops and very early indications of vine cultivation) dating from the 5th century BC.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Some of the grave goods from the excavation of the rich cremation deposit: ceramic vases,
glass balsamaria, two mirrors, a gold ring, two lead miniatures, a burnt bone token
and burnt bone parts of a volumen [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

The current excavation reveals an earlier protohistoric occupation, in the 8th century BC with an alignment of hearths and an ancient occupation consisting of a funerary complex at the crossroads of an agricultural traffic network.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Protohistoric hearths being excavated [Credit: © Christel Fraisse, Inrap]

Archaeologists have uncovered a series of sixteen hearths with heating stones. These pits, with fire blackened walls, mostly contain a bed of large basalt stones weighing several dozen kilos, resting on a pile of charcoal, sometimes quite thick.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Stone hearth during excavation [Credit: © Inrap]

They are aligned at regular intervals over about seventy-five metres inside the site, and could extend over more than a hundred metres along a north/south axis according to the diagnostic data. This spectacular development has many comparisons in the Rhone Valley. It would date from around the 8th century BC.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Decorated harness loop [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]




The parcel of land in question is located in a slight depression along the western slope of a talweg (water collection line at the bottom of a valley) flowing towards the Bourdary stream. Several pathways have been identified within the area, probably dating back to Roman times and continuing thereafter, as evidenced by a decorated harness loop found in its fill, dated to the 3rd century AD.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Circular masonry construction being excavated [Credit: © Inrap]

A sunken path about 2m wide, sometimes with ruts 1.2 to 1.4m apart, was excavated and re-cut for about 50m. It had a modestly sized bypass leading away from the main axis towards the east. A masonry ditch crossing consisting of two piers with a 0.5 m central conduit was excavated to the south of the path. The presence of this bridge crossing a wide parcel ditch draining over several hundred metres identified in the survey demonstrates the existence of an east/west lateral route not identified on the surface, but which potentially had to connect to the main axis of the central sunken road. 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
The masonry construction (mausoleum?) completely excavated and cleared [Credit: © Inrap]

The excavation area is crossed by around ten drains, catchments or drainage ditches, all of which run southwards towards Mont Devois along this ancient circulation axis. The construction of the drains is carefully planned in order to ensure the permanent drainage of the surface water and of the water table, which allow the paths to be drained. The majority of these installations have a covered conduit fitted between two vertical posts covered with calibrated stones ensuring surface drainage. These installations are built in several phases, some of which date back to the Roman period, probably in connection with the villa du Clos plot located to the north of the excavation.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Secondary deposit of cremation residues with ceramic furniture
being excavated [Credit: © Inrap]

The particular conditions of a plot of land too wet to cultivate and difficult to drain, at the crossroads of a small network of ancient agricultural roads, allowed the preservation under barely 0.4m of topsoil of a small burial complex founded in Tiberian times and occupied at least until the end of the 2nd century AD.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Secondary deposit of cremation residues with ceramic furniture
being excavated [Credit: © Inrap]




More than twenty cremation deposits, three burials and votive deposits dating from the time of the Late Empire have been discovered around a circular masonry construction. Mostly secondary deposits with cremation remains were found, often accompanied by well-preserved artefacts. 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Blown glass balsamaria [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

An amphora deposit yielded a specimen of a small iron wine serpent. Several deposits have yielded blown glass balsamaries, some of which still contained pink powder, which will be analysed in the future. Two burials of infants and one burial of an adult were uncovered. At least one pyre, a libation channel and several votive deposits were also excavated.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
One of the balsamaria contains pink powder that will be analysed in the near future
[Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

Among these tombs, one particularly rich deposit contained some twenty objects, including ceramic vases, several glass balsams, two bronze mirrors, the remains of a volumen (a tube in which a parchment is rolled), a gold ring and an exceptional set of lead miniatures symbolising toilet accessories. 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
A pair of skilfully decorated lead miniature sandals hung on a peg (length: about 9 cm)
[Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

A pair of elaborately decorated miniature sandals hung on a coat hook is the only comparable example in the Roman world to date. They were associated with four miniature strigils mounted on a ring, of which no parallel is known to this day in this material. The presence of mirrors, the volumen, the toiletries and the small diameter of the gold ring seem to point in the direction of a tomb dedicated to a female person.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Four lead miniature strigils (toilet accessories) mounted on a ring (length: about 7 cm)
[Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]




The circular masonry monument with an external diameter of 6.5m consists of a 0.5m wide ring of limestone blocks. It is preserved on one or two elevations and has a foundation 0.7 to 0.8m deep, sometimes consisting of orthostats (upright stones) at its base. To the north, an interruption in the ground level of about 1.5m could potentially represent an entrance to the monument. Three secondary deposits of cremated remains were located within this space. 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Small iron wine-making spoon [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

One deposit was located in the centre of the masonry circle, a small deposit with an ossuary and three balsams was located just behind the entrance, and a final deposit with little material nonetheless yielded a coin that dates the construction of this monument to the second quarter of the first century AD. It is sealed by a crown of pebbles forming a slight ridge. 

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Mirror with the reflection of a sigillated ceramic [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

An earlier mausoleum had already been discovered in the commune of Alba, in a necropolis to the north of the ancient city. The discovery of this second monument is therefore quite exceptional in terms of its conservation and dating, which is currently being analysed.

Protohistoric hearths and a Romano-Gallic funerary complex unearthed in southern France
Gold ring (fragmented) [Credit: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap]

This small funerary ensemble around the circular monument (mausoleum?) and the presence of a female aristocratic tomb could indicate a private family necropolis on the estate of the Villa du Clos excavated in 2005 and barely 300m to the north.

Source: Inrap [trsl. TANN; Original article published January 27, 2021]

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