Even if you're nowhere near Arles - make a point of getting there to see this exceptional exhibition. It's on almost all year (till 19th September) and is fantastic.
A marble bust of Caesar, made in his lifetime, is the centrepiece of around 700 Roman artefacts objects pulled out of the Rhone (and the Mediterranean) by the lovely old city of Arles during 20 long years of underwater excavations. Imagine working in the murky waters of the Rhone, oxygen tanks and flippers on, spotting Roman remains in the weed and the gloom. Here a statue of Neptune, there a bust of Caesar.
That's what I call having a job...
During the long underwater dig, the archaeologists worked in some pretty testing conditions in the wide, fast-flowing river and the coastal waters of the Bouches-du-Rhone. The exhibition has several short films showing these expert divers at work as they find, clean, lift and record these priceless works. (Interested in archaeology?: The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures )
It was in 2007, when the divers were getting ready to stop the excavations, that they spotted a number of stone fragments. They turned out to be a cache of Roman stones from friezes and mausoleums. As the find was examined, the dirty, stained marble bust of Caesar was identified and is without doubt the main treasure hauled out of the Rhone to date. (For more on Caesar,click here Caesar: Life of a Colossus .)
Identified, dated, cleaned and carefully restored by archaeological experts, the work is in amazingly good condition, with just a little cut on the nose.
Exhibition designer, Pierre Berthier, has produced a really spectacular display showing the process of discovery and recovery as well as the works themselves. The restoration work, and the task of confirming that the bust really is of Caesar were filmed so that visitors to the museum can see it being de-silted, cleaned, dated and then analysed to match its lines and proportions with an already-identified bust of Caesar kept in Italy.
The exhibition, seen along with the museum’s tremendous permanent collection, vividly shows how Rome’s wealth and power was felt in ancient Arles. Arles in antiquity was a crucial staging post in the movement of goods in the Roman empire. Its busy port saw cargo arriving from and setting off to points all over Europe, Africa and the Orient: The Roman Remains of Southern France: A Guide Book
The Rhone excavations came up with the remains of fifteen shipwrecks, including fine jewellery, hardy kitchen utensils, weighing scales, tools, iron and lead ingots, shoes, little toys and statuettes. Dozens of huge stone amphorae once contained wine, oil and fish sauce. Heavy stone sarcophagi were found along with a great statue of Neptune and a tethered male slave.
But the focal point is undoubtedly Caesar. Standing in a dimly-lit room, rescued from the dark currents, silt and weed of the river, it projects a spine-tingling sense of antiquity. His face is somehow very contemporary. Its features are strong and well-defined; the expression is grave.
Experts believe it was sculpted from life in 46BC, which means it reflects Caesar’s standing and power just two years before he was killed.
This wonderful exhibition runs until September 2010 and then the exhibits will become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Luc Long, head of archaeological, subaquatic and deep sea research in France, is the exhibition's organiser. He says: "We made new and very beautiful discoveries in 2009 which leave us thinking that we haven’t come to the end of the reserves that this great natural museum - the Rhone river - still holds".
Which means we may get to see other exceptional exhibitions in this fine Provencal museum in the not-too-distant future.
Click here for details of opening hours and access to the Musee Departemental Arles Antique.
For more detail on Arles click here.