Nîmes’ Musée de la Romanité Part One: Gallic Tribes and Roman Lives

Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

In June 2018, the new Musée de la Romanité opened up in Nîmes.  The news was all over the media and they generated much hype which I, as a Roman fan, was surprised but very happy to see.

I was therefore doubly pleased that Nîmes was on my list of cities to visit in the summer.

The Outside of the Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The outside of the Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Now, I should clarify – the museum is called Musée de la Romanité, which they themselves translate into English as The Museum of Romanity.  That makes no sense in English, and a better translation would be Roman-ness.  But that is a stupid name in English, so I’ve decided to just refer to the museum in its French name.

The new building, an Elizabeth de Portzamparc design, was commissioned after the discovery of a Roman house and two amazing mosaics in 2006/7.  The old 19th century museum was already cramped, and so to accommodate these new finds a new, modern home was needed.  And it’s awfully nice – with thoughtful curation and considered design.

Even though its title stresses the Roman emphasis of the museum, the journey starts in the 7th century BC, and goes through to touch on the Middle Ages, throwing in a few 18th/19th century objects for good measure at the end.

Let’s start at the beginning – Gallic Nîmes.

Impressive staircases of the brand new Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Gallic Nîmes

The first traces of human habitation in Nîmes date from the end of the 6th century BC and were found close to the sacred spring dedicated to Nemausus – the current site of the Jardin de la Fontaine.  The Celts who lived in the area came to benefit from trade that went through the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseille), though they didn’t just gain material profits: the Celts had no writing system of their own, and this area is littered with inscriptions in the Celtic language, written in Greek letters.  Interestingly, it’s still not possible to always completely understand Gallo-Greek inscriptions, because the Gallic language has not been fully deciphered.

Gallo-Greek dedication to the Mother Goddesses of Nîmes, 2nd-1st BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Gallo-Greek dedication, NEPTOMAPOΣ, 2nd-1st century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Gallo-Greek epitaph, to Eskingoris, son of Condalos, 2nd/1st century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Pillars and a bust of a heroic warrior, second half of 7th/beginning of 6th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze discs, 6th century BC, imported from Etruria, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. They were used in rituals and are a sign of trade.

For me, one of the most fascinating finds was the statues.  I had to study the Celts for my A-levels, and back then I hated them – they just seemed so boring.  It’s a shame I didn’t know about some of the works on show here.

Statue of a crouching man, with traces of red paint on the torso, end of 3rd/2nd century BC,
Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Statue of a warrior, second half of the 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Deatil of the statue of a warrior, second half of the 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Male bust with torque, and paint, 7th/6th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the male bust with torque, and paint, 7th/6th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The strange back of the helmet of the male bust with torque, 7th/6th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

A reproduction to look at and touch, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

A reproduction to look at and touch, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of a statue of a warrior, second half of the 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The friezes that show severed heads are particularly interesting.  The fact that the Gauls chopped off the heads of their enemies was documented by ancient writers, but I thought it was fascinating that this ghoulish tradition was immortalised in stone.  One further factoid I discovered, is that the Gauls embalmed these heads to keep them in tip-top condition, and very recent research has identified that they used conifer resin for the job (see here for the article from Science) – I love the way that archaeology keeps on giving!

Detail of a frieze with cut off heads, 2nd century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Frieze with cut off heads, 2nd century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It was found in the Nimes amphitheatre, where it had been reused in a house.

Lintel with cut off heads and a horse, 2nd century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

A portion of the section dedicated to the pre-Roman era is taken up by the impressive reconstitution of the Gallic house of Gailhan (Gard), which dates from the end of the 5th century BC and was excavated from 1978 to 1981. The house collapsed suddenly, and thus perfectly preserved the living conditions of its inhabitants, allowing archaeologists to gain a real insight into a Gallic home.  It was quite cosy, really.

Looking into the Gallic House of Gailhan, end of 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The ceramics in the Gallic House of Gailhan, end of 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The hearth of the Gallic House of Gailhan, end of 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Cooking pot and lid in the Gallic House of Gailhan, end of 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

The ceramics in the Gallic House of Gailhan, end of 5th century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

And now back to other random Gallic objects, as we edge towards the Roman era.  The Gauls had an unhappy relationship with the Romans – there was much fighting between them from the early 4th century BC onwards.

From 123 BC the Romans made of a concerted effort to take over Gallic territory and by118 BC, they’d taken over much of the area between the Alps and the Pyrenees, creating the province that, under Augustus, became known as Gallia Narbonensis. Nîmes got its name from Nemausus, the Gallic god whose cult was related to the sacred springs up the road.  Economically and demographically there was growth in the region, and Nîmes in particular had a large amount of housing – it’s estimated that the city covered 30-35 hectares, proportions which have only two equals in Southern Gaul: Arles and Béziers.   Another sign of its status is the fact that it was the first city in eastern Languedoc to coin its own money at the beginning of the 2nd century BC.

Pottery fragment from a tomb, c100BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Base of the bowl with graffiti ADBOU, 2nd century BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Tail of an animal hybrid, pre-Roman era, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Animal hybrid, pre-Roman era, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bent sword from a tomb, c100BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Plates, 75-50BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze simpulum, 75-50BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

A pre-Roman display of nestling jugs, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Projection on a wall in the Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Please click here for Part Two, where we look at post-Augustan Roman finds.

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