France Medieval Archaeology

France Medieval Archaeology

The data that French medieval archeology has brought to light in recent decades contribute in a fundamental way to the clarification and definition of relevant aspects of the Middle Ages; they concern both daily life with its environments, its tools, its food uses, and artistic production, for which new fundamental documents of architecture, sculpture and jewelery have been acquired.

Among the excavations, the results of which have been published in the last two decades, at least four appear to be of particular relevance; as well as for the extent of their results, they are in fact in many ways exemplary of the plurality and problematic nature of the methodologies followed, as well as of the variety of purposes that today mark the growth and development of medieval archeology.

The excavations of Rougiers (dep. Var) undoubtedly constitute the most relevant French case of archeology planned for the total study of an abandoned site. Begun in 1961 and lasted for about fifteen years, they were published in 1980 by G. Demians d’Archimbaud. The site of the excavation was the abandoned site of Rougiers, located on a relief of Provence, consisting of a castle with a keep and an underlying village where, in addition to numerous houses, cisterns, caves, fountains and a forge were archeologically investigated. The aim of the research was the recovery of all traces of human settlement in a site whose abandonment entails the cessation of historical development at a precise moment; the conspicuous series of documents found is analytically examined in the monumental publication of the excavations,

According to, the excavation that led to the recovery of the cloister of the church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux in Châlons-surMarne is totally different; in this case the excavation was aimed at recovering not only the layout of the cloister, but above all its plastic decoration – statues-columns and capitals – which a careful reading of the architectures that arose in the place after the destruction of the cloister had identified reused as material to be construction.

The excavation, conducted between 1963 and 1976, was preceded and constantly accompanied by a “ vertical archeology ” operation, aimed at identifying the materials, their recovery, carried out with the demolition of the buildings that had them incorporated, and to their study within the framework of the possibility of recomposition of the plastic architectural complex. The entire layout of the foundations of the four galleries and approximately three quarters of the arches (S. L. pressouyre, 1978). Extraordinary is the quality of the sculptures already presages the ability to create and animate the space typical of Gothic statuary,

A decidedly random discovery was instead that of 364 pieces from the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which took place in April 1977, during the restoration of the Hôtel Moreau, home of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur, in rue de la Chaussée d ‘ Antin.

In a pit, which appears to have been clearly excavated to keep them, fragments of statues have come to light, especially some heads, which historical investigation has allowed us to identify as parts of that statuary of Notre-Dame that the excesses of the French Revolution involved in the elimination of the signs of royal power. The demolition of the statues was decreed in July 1793 and was carried out between September and October of the same year; abandoned on the sidewalk in front of Notre-Dame, the pieces found a buyer only in 1796. It was thus that the statues arrived in the construction site of the house that J.-B. Lakanal was being built on the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin; a part of them was probably incorporated into the foundations and walls, while others were buried with great care in the court. They form a stylistically anything but unitary complex; their study, however, made it possible to identify its relevance to some of the most important sculptural groups of Notre-Dame.

The oldest fragments come from the right portal of the facade, the so-called portal of S. Anna; thanks to an engraving published by Bernard de Montfaucon (Monuments de la monarchie française, Paris 1729) it was possible to identify and reconstruct a large number of pieces of the figures of kings and queens of the dynasty of Judah as well as those of s. Pietro and s. Paul; the figures were largely made around 1150 for the ancient Merovingian cathedral of Saint-Etienne and were reassembled around 1210 on the facade of the new cathedral under construction.

An angel’s head, datable around 1210-20, is instead the only substantial part attributable with certainty to the left portal or the Coronation of the Virgin, a complex known only through a modest 18th century engraving. The fragment, of very high quality, ranks among the most notable sculptures of the early decades of the thirteenth century and “forces us to rethink the role of this portal in the panorama of early 13th century sculpture” (Erlande-Brandenburg, in Notre-Dame de Paris, Florence 1980).

Two fragments of apostles and a character under a shelf can be referred to the central portal dedicated to the theme of the Last Judgment, also known only from iconographic evidence of the 18th century. A fragment of an apostle’s torso can also be attributed to this complex, recovered from the Seine in 1880 and now kept in the Musée Carnavalet.

The greatest contribution to the knowledge of the sculpture of Notre-Dame, however, was given by the identification, among the various heads discovered in 1977, of those that decorated the Gallery of the kings; this is the structure that horizontally marks the facade above the three portals and where, before the Revolution, 28 statues over three and a half meters high were inserted. They corresponded to the figures of the 28 kings ancestors of Christ, according to the enumeration that Matthew makes of them; the statues were made around 1230 by different masters, including some, such as the author of the one cataloged with number 6, already precursors of the great development of statuary in the years around 1240. The conspicuous traces of color identified on some (yellow on the hair, red for the mouths, black for the pupils and eyebrows, pink for the cheeks) are an extraordinary contribution to the knowledge of the role of color in medieval sculpture; the theme of polychrome is becoming more and more clear in the studies on sculpture thanks to the increasing number of observations which demonstrate the role of polychrome sculpture also in the architectural context.

Other fragments have been related to the portal of the north arm of the transept, including a female and two male heads, one of which, crowned, has been identified as the head of a magician king.

The last major archaeological excavation is the one that took place between 1983 and 1985 in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre; the construction site was opened within the framework of the Grand Louvre project in order to recover those traces that the investigation of the medieval Louvre, conducted in 1866 by A. Berty, had partially identified and to deepen their knowledge. The survey, conducted by M. Fleury and V. Kruta, has largely exceeded initial expectations, bringing to light a large part of the castle erected by Philip Augustus at the end of the 12th century, the extensions made by Charles V that transformed it into a prestigious royal residence, as well as conspicuous evidence of the life of the castle, from the most important ones such as the parade weapons of Charles VI, to those that reflect the reality of common life such as coins, pottery or animal remains that are a document of food uses.

The castle of Philip Augustus was built between 1190 and 1202 as part of the fortification of the city, before the king’s departure for the Crusade; the center of the complex was the large circular keep – about 15 meters in diameter and more than 30 in height – which stood isolated, surrounded only by a moat, in the center of a quadrangular enclosure, marked on the outside by ten semicircular towers. The famous image of the castle, illuminated against the background of the agricultural work planned for October in the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, gives an image, substantially confirmed by the excavations, of the southern and eastern sides of the castle, after the works of restructuring and expansion operated by Carlo v between 1360 and 1380. They transformed a medieval fortification into one of the most famous royal palaces, seat among other things in the Tour de la librairie of the Charles V library, which later became one of the fundamental nuclei of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

France Medieval Archaeology