Dissected Layers: Grenoble Archaeological Museum

The Archaeological Museum of St Laurent, Musée archéologique Saint-Laurent, Grenoble, France

Across the Isère river, in the quaint streets of the St Laurent quarter of Grenoble, is a fascinating little museum which serves as a heartening example of what can happen if you dig down under the buildings of cities with ancient origins.

Outside the Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

The museum is proud of the fact that 2000 years of history are covered in the site – spanning from a Roman necropolis to the 19th century.  Excavations were undertaken from 1978 to 1995, with the church only being deconsecrated in 1983, and the initial museum opening three years later.   Renovations led to the reopening in 2011, with an attractive use of technology to help recreate and understand the archaeology of the site.

In 1803, the 6th century crypt of St Oyand was rediscovered by Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac (brother of the famous Egyptologist).  This discovery generated a good deal of interest and when Prosper Mérimee visited Grenoble in 1839, in his capacity as Inspector General of Historical Monuments, he waxed lyrical about the crypt and the site which has the distinction of being one of the first to be classified as a ‘historical monument’.

The church was used as a museum for locally discovered Gallo-Roman remains from 1853, but it’s really been the excavations from the 1970s that have made the site what it is today.  Over 1,500 graves have been found, the discovery of which has in turn unearthed over 3000 objects, dating from the 4th to the 18th century.  This incredible succession of burials has led to an increase in understanding of burial patterns, practices and religious beliefs of people in this region over 1600 years.

I’m not even going to try and explain the different levels of constructions and burials, and heartily suggest that you visit the museum to see things for yourself!

Cross from the belfry, 15th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. it was taken down in th 1980s. There is a dolphin-shaped weather-vane. The flowers may have been added when the tower was rebuilt in 1646

Cross from the belfry, 15th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. It was taken down in the 1980s. There is a dolphin-shaped weather-vane. The flowers may have been added when the tower was rebuilt in 1646

Looking down into the inside of the church, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

From the film showing the reconstruction of the Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Statue of a bishop, 12th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Stoned-in arch, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Stoned-in arch, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Remnants of painting in the filled-in arch at Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Remnants of a fresco in the filled-in arch, 13th/14th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Remnants from the inner surface of the filled-in arch, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Painting of St Peter in the filled-in arch, 13th/14th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Looking into the church, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Inscription used to build a wall, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. ‘Here rests in peace Eufrasius who lived for 21 years and died on the 10th of the Kalends of March, the 14th Indiction after the consulate of Rusticianius and Vitallianus [521AD]’.

Looking down into a tomb, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Rows of memorial stones, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

The sculpted decoration of the Romanesque church and cloister, 11th-12th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Looking over the graves in the church, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Looking towards the altar, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Columns and crumbling paintwork, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Jesus and symbolic representations of the apostles, 19th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Painting of St Laurent Church, 1848, Théodore Ravanat, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Altar candlesticks, 1748, François Berthet, gilded wood, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Old wooden cupboards in the sacristy, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Layers of burials, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Funerary amphora, late 4th-5th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. The amphora was made in Southern Spain and was later used for the burial of a child.

Capital showing two remarkable creatures from the Crypt of St Oyand, 7th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Capital showing two birds from the Crypt of St Oyand, 7th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Capital showing two sheep from the Crypt of St Oyand, 7th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France

Epitaph of Elpidius, early 6th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. ‘Here rests in peace Elpidius, he lived… years and eight months.’

Epitaph of Populonia, late 6th-early 7th century, Grenoble Archaeological Museum, Grenoble, France. ‘[In this] tomb rest in peace, well remembered, a servant devoted to the Lord, the young Populonia [who] in the hope of resurrection, by the mercy of Christ, lived 25 years and died on the Ides of October in the twelfth [year] of the indiction.’

So In Summary

Rather like the other museums of Grenoble, St Laurent presents an interesting, unusual mix of history and archaeology in a very direct way.  The building is not perhaps the most exciting you’ll visit, but it serves as a good example of what archaeology actually is, what living in an ancient city actually means, and how different generations make changes and build on the work of their predecessors.  The museum does a great job of unravelling the layers of building work and letting you see it from different angles, so you can really get to understand the way the church and its environs changed over the centuries, adapting to the needs of the parish and its parishioners.

Further Information

Entry into the museum is free.

There is a website in English (linked with other museums of the area) which gives you all the basic information you may need to plan your visit: www.musees.isere.fr

How To Get There

I recommend using public transport to get you to the site, if you’re coming in from the train station area. Here is a link to the local transport site: www.tag.fr

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