Little Archaeological Treasures in Lausanne

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Cantonal Museum of Archaeology and History, Musée cantonal d’archéologie et d’histoire (MCAH), Lausanne, Switzerland

The centrally located Palais de Rumine, a great big building on the Place de la Riponne, is home to five local museums.  On the first floor is the little Cantonal Archaeology & History Museum.  It looks at the archaeology of the Lake Geneva region from 15,000 BC onwards, showing the development of people from hunter-gatherers to the sophisticated Vaudois of the modern world.

There are two sections of the museum, the Salle Troyon to the right of the stairs, which looks at pre-history, and the Salle Naef, to the left, which looks at life after the Iron Age.  Both galleries are named after local boys who became important contributors to local archaeology.  Frédéric Troyon (1815-1866) was an archaeologist and curator who fell into this field of study when he discovered some local Burgundian tombs.  He was particularly interested in pre-history and was the curator of the Cantonal Antiquities Museum from 1852.  Albert Naef (1862-1936) undertook high-profile restoration projects, like Chillon Castle in 1897, but he also was involved in local archaeology.

There are some interesting items on display in the Salle Troyon, including some striking Bronze Age objects.

The space is used well in the museum, with traditional well-lit displays and a series of exhibits (bones, pots and things) seen through the glass floor.  Disorientating, but clever.  Personally, walking on glass is not something I like – not least because if there was something I really wanted to look at, I would have to prostate myself on the floor, pressing my little nose against the glass.  As it happens, because there was a crowd around, I only gave these displays a cursory glance. How can you really look at things in the floor when everyone is walking around over it?  I guess they don’t really expect crowds.

The items in the Salle Naef were really more interesting, rather more random, and occasionally very special.

This region of the canton of Vaud has had many influences; there were Celts, Romans, Burgundians, Merovingians, Carolingians, Savoyards, the Holy Roman Empire, the Bernese…  the quality of some of the items that have been found show that from an early period this was not a backwater but a flourishing and vibrant hub.  Whether the found items were brought here from elsewhere by trade, or whether they were produced locally, the items here show by their quality that they had a discerning – and wealthy – audience.  The golden torque is one of the most sublime I’ve seen; it’s so delicate and has an elegance you don’t necessarily associate with golden items of this period.

That there was trade in the area from an early period is demonstrated by these little glass Phoenician heads.  These are widespread throughout the Mediterranean, basically because the Phoenicians were prolific traders and good at offloading their tat.  These little guys are unique in that they are apparently the only ones that have been excavated north of the Alps.

The Roman items on display are also very good quality.  The glass bowls are very delicate  and again demonstrate the status of locals that they could afford items like this.  The bronze statuettes are dynamic and elegant, the fresco shows a sophisticated painting style and even the fragment of cupid show how supremely skilful the local craftsmen were.  I mean: he’s got dimples!  Okay, some of these items could have been made elsewhere and got shipped in, but the point is the locals wanted quality and got it.

(For more about life in Orbe-Boscéaz, which is where the cupid was found, there is a very detailed publication which outlines the archaeology as well as building up images of what it was like at the time.  Available for free download (in French):

There is also a great selection of Merovingian bronze buckles from the 500/600s.  These are just adorable and really quite abstract in style.

One of the really unusual finds of the museum is from excavations around Lausanne Cathedral, from a site which was probably a burial ground.  A cross pendant, which at first glance looks quite ordinary, is actually something more mysterious.  The inscription says, “Abra, Abrac, Abraca” etc, variations on Abracadabra which were used in 2nd century AD Roman Egypt as magical words.  The power of the word Abracadabra is in its being written out eleven times with the last letter omitted each time.  Presumably therefore this was an amulet designed to protect its wearer through decidedly non-Christian-mainstream means.

Found in Baulmes in the north of the canton of Vaud is another curiosity.  A funeral stele in vulgar Latin-Merovingian, it is dedicated to a woman:

“Under this stone rests the virgin Landoalda. May her soul find eternal peace. I, Gundericus, a stranger in a foreign land, made [this stele]”

So who was Landoalda?  Why did Gundericus go to the effort of getting this stele made?  This wouldn’t have been cheap.  His quote from the Bible about being a stranger in a foreign land – is this a literal comment on his own situation or a theological one?  This is one of those objects that can get an academic writing speculation for hundreds of pages.  Since I am not an academic, I’ll leave you to come up with your own idea of what Gundericus’ motivation was.

The small, elegant, beautifully made Processional Cross with Mary and St John and St Peter is another little treasure. It’s from a church in Moudon, the former capital of Savoyard-Vaud and therefore presumably well-off.  The enamelling of the haloes and the shining eyes of Jesus make it a very striking piece.

The next item of note is a wooden polychrome statue bearing the inscription “sire de Champvent fut mort“: The Sire of Champvent was dead.  It’s like the opening line of a gothic novel.  Sadly the inscription is probably unrelated to the scene.  The horseman at the bottom who has his hands out like an orant may depict the 2nd century St Eustace.  He went hunting one day and saw a cross between the antlers of a stag, converted to Christianity and inspired the hideous drink, Jägermeister (check out the label).

In this beautifully carved and delicately painted scene from Geneva, the star of the show is the chap with two dogs.  The piece is attributed to Peter and Mattelin Vuarser, who were active in the Vaud area in the 1500s.  I love the way the nobleman is stylised with a stylised horse, while the man with the dogs is more natural in pose, with realistic dogs.  The details of the man with the dog are also really interesting: his boots, the belt, the hunting horn slung across his chest – the light pattern at the edges of the fabric, the layering of the tunic, which is crumpled by the strap of the horn – the hand, the rope… it’s all just gorgeous.

Another curiosity is the pince which was probably used in the construction of the church of St Saphorin on Lake Geneva in the early 1500s.  It’s not often you get to see the building tools of this period, and you can’t help but admire the builders – this doesn’t look like the sturdiest of equipment, but presumably did the job!

So In Summary

While the collection isn’t large, there are interesting (and high quality) exhibits, with an eclectic mix that’s fun to explore.  The museum has designed its displays with good lighting and informative tags, and you feel that the curators respect the objects, which then makes you respect the objects.

Further Information

The museum has its own website, which has all the basic information available in French.  It is supposedly also available in English, but this feature has never worked when I’ve visited:

There are five cantonal museums of Vaud in the Palais de Rumine.  The building itself used to be a part of the university, and there are still lots of students hanging out there.  If you want to get the most out of your trip and want to visit the other museums, check out

How to Get There

Please check out my Palais Rumine post for further information.











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