Apta Julia – The hidden history of Apt

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to do a pop-up event with my jewellery, in the cellar of our friends’ newly restored town house and apartments in the centre of Apt Cent Cinq . I say cellar, but this was the most beautiful, vaulted stone room, set below the house on the main pedestrianised street, Rue Des Marchands, in the heart of the old town.

The beautiful cellar under Cent Cinq, with its Roman Mosaic floor

Whilst I was there I noticed some regular black markings in the floor, and when I looked closer, I realised it was a pattern of squares, making basic flowers at intervals, surrounded by, what appeared to be a black border, made using little tesserae.

The extent of the floor, now known to be 1st century Roman (Photo Chris & Jen Mallon)

I make no suggestion that I am an archeologist, but to me it looked like an ancient roman mosaic floor. But really, could it be an original floor, sitting in the cellar of a friend’s house? Surely that wasn’t possible?

The small details amongst the ancient floor (Photo Chris & Jen Mallon)

It seems though that it was, and has since been examined and found to be 1st century Roman, one of the oldest such floors to be found in the town, which is amazing, and has spurred them on to investigate their cellars further, to see what else can be found.

Whilst the age of the floor is unusual, the fact that it is to be found under an old house in the pretty, narrow streets of the old town isn’t that strange. In fact, hidden below Apt are the remains of the ancient Roman city of Apta Julia, including parts of its wonderful Theatre, together with other original remains of the buildings that were constructed here, following its foundation in the 1st century BC.

Hidden below the pavements, squares and buildings are the footprints and remains of the old baths, the forum, temples and the theatre, which would have been a similar size to the one at Orange, and the cellars below the houses and shops, house some of the gems of the town, that has such a story to tell.

The beautiful vaulted cellar under Maison Suet Opticians, recently restored and used as an exhibition venue

This week we had the opportunity to find out more, when we joined a group of friends (including Jen & Chris,who have the mosaic in their cellar) and organised a private visit at the Archeology Museum, an annexe to the town’s Musee D’Apt.

We were guided round by Helene, who gave us a wonderful potted history of the town, based on the artefacts that have been found here & in the surrounding villages, and just across the border at Chastelard de Lardiers, near Banon.

Even the most basic of items were beautifully made

There is evidence of human life here dating back 300,000 years to Paleolithic times, with ancient stone tools having been found, which can then be tracked through to the Neolithic period, with fine stone hammers and arrowheads, and even delicate bone jewellery on display.

Prehistoric tools from the surrounding area

Life continued here during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, with more intricate tools, including a beautifully engraved sword, having been unearthed…

Together with finely made pottery, which is incredibly delicate, considering this was during the time of the Gauls, and was made by winding long ‘sausages’ of clay around to make the basic shapes, before being worked by hand and decorated with shells and other tools. Looking at the delicate nature of the pieces on display, it was hard to believe that they had been created in this way, rather than simply being turned on a potter’s wheel (which was yet to be introduced)…

Fine pottery and a bronze age sword

At this time, we learned that the Gauls were living in settlements built on the high points across the area, the houses were adapted to the climate with flat roofs, where they could dry their pots, and these in turn were protected by thick defensive walls. These villages were called Oppidums, and were home to the majority of the residents in the area, one being at Chastelard de Lardiers, near Banon, which was the source of a considerable number of the artefacts in the museum. I couldn’t help but think of Oppede Le Vieux and Oppedette, wondering whether they had taken their names from this root too.

The Romans arrived in the area, and in the last century BC started to establish the city of Apta Julia on the route of the Via Domitia, which ran between Italy and Spain along the ancient Greek Heraclean Way. The city was established under the direction of Julius Cesar in 45 BC, taking his name, and was built on an island between two spurs of the Calavon River, quickly becoming a renowned point in the Roman Empire,

Apta Julie, originally built on an island in a fork of the Calavon river

What was fascinating, looking at the pieces on display within the museum, was how the cultures took on differing rites and beliefs, bringing them together in many ways, creating an amalgum of religion in the earliest days of the city’s existence.

An example being one of the small, stone altars that was on display, marked with Sylvan, the Roman God of the Forest and the mark of the Gaul God of Building (depicted by the hammer), as it was considered that the two deities were very similar in nature. This acceptance of the Gaul beliefs is widely evident, and can only have served to help build relationships between the two very different cultures.

Gaul and Roman beliefs on one altar

The Gaul site near Banon, was abandoned as a village, as the residents moved down into the plains, but this was subsequently developed as a Temple and the museum holds a collection of the votive lamps that were amongst the many thousands that were subsequently found there, discarded in a pit, once their lights had gone out…

Some of the approximately 50,000 lamps found discarded at the temple near Banon

Our guide talked us through the traditions relating to death, during the Roman era here, with pieces recovered from cremation urns that have been found. The coins that were put in the deceased’s mouth to allow them to pay the ferryman, the toys and pendants that were found with children’s remains and the more personal belongings that were left to accompany them on their way to the after-life.

Cremation remains, including the coin to pay the ferryman

Again the tomb-stones that were on display showed the shift in religion, with one for Columba, headed by the Christian symbols of Alpha and Omega with a cross, but still paying respect to the Roman deities too. In fact the city was recognised as a Christian base in the early 4th Century, with two of its representatives being present at the first Synod at Arles, just one year after Christianity became a legal religion.

Upstairs we saw wonderful, restored sections of mosaic floors that have been found across the area. From a beautifully patterned piece that was found in Apt, with floral and star detail….

Part of a mosaic floor found at Saint Pierre, Apt (originally with added yellow paint, as the owner hadn’t thought it was bright enough!)

Another quite amazing section of brightly coloured squares, encrusted with slabs of marble.. And a section of a floor found in Bonnieux, which was incredibly similar to the one found in our friend’s cellar.

The mosaic on the right was so similar to thet in our friends’ cellar

The strange ‘concrete’ appearance of the floor between the mosaic pieces is created from broken pottery, which is mixed in with the cement to form a solid slab, with the small tesserae being added for decoration. The piece from Bonnieux showed Dolphins, but was so similar in style to the one I have seen in the cellar at Cent Cinq, that it just made me smile…

Here too, there is a model of a huge Roman Farm that is actually just down the hill from us at Tourville, discovered when work was started on a local building. Unfortunately the builders carrying out the work saw the remains, but continued to destroy them with diggers, as they didn’t want the work interrupted. I was horrified to think that anyone would even consider this was appropriate, but happily others felt the same and intervened, with a stop being put on the work at the site.

A model of the farm at Tourville and the urn, recovered from one of the builder’s gardens!

This would have been an incredible site in its own right, a farm that had been active for 300 years, shifting from olive oil production to wine, the huge containers still in situ, and so intact, that one was removed to one of the workers’ gardens to be used as a plant pot, since recovered and on display in the Museum (seen above).

The guided tour of all the cabinets, with Helene, who was a passionate and animated expert, gave us so much more that we would have got, if we had walked around ourselves.

Then we moved on to look at the Theatre, the huge structure that sat in the centre of the town, near the Cathedral. The Museum has a plaster model, which was used as the basis for a bronze depiction of the monument, which is now to be found to the rear of the Cathedral on the corner of Place Carnot, close to where the original structure was built.

The plaster model of the theatre with some of the incredible finds

There are pieces of the original stoneworks from the structure, but most incredible, are 3 marble sculptures, which have been saved, after different organisations came together to provide funds for them to be bought, after they had been found in a private cellar in 2005.

These marble sculptures are exquisite, and were found in the pit, which would originally have held the mechanism for the stage sets. One is of a nobleman, with a strange setting at the neck, which would have allowed for the head to be changed when needed…

The Nobleman, designed to have different heads

An incredibly detailed torso of Dionysus / Bacchus, the god associated with theatre, wine and fun….

The incredibly carved Bacchus

And a jaw-dropping depiction of Pan, with his furred legs, and cloak, his pipes ready in his hand to start a tune. The quality of the scuplture is incredible and it is believed that these two figures formed part of a frieze, near the stage, and having seen these two pieces, I can only imagine how beautiful it would have been in its entirety..

The sublime Pan, so incredibly detailed

I’m just delighted that they will remain in the town, as so many other pieces have been lost, including an exquisite sculpture of a seated mother and child, which now sits in Chatsworth House, the stately home in Derbyshire, after being removed from where it originally sat in public gardens in Apt, in the mid 1700s.

Once having got a sense of Roman Apt, we left the museum annex and walked along the narrow Rue Sainte-Delphine, which sits above where the wall of the old theatre would have been, coming out onto the, rather appropriately named, Rue De L’Amphitheatre.

It’s bizarre, but often, when I have walked along this street, I have noticed red lines and squares, painted onto the road, and have always thought perhaps they have been placed there to mark out work that needs to be done, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, these lines mark the original placement of the Theatre, showing the placement of the stone pillars that supported the outer wall, and the position of the stepped seats inside, running down towards the stage.

These red lines have a hidden meaning

If I’m honest, I couldn’t believe that I had been walking over them for so many years, with no idea of what was effectively below my feet…

From here, we went into the beautiful old building, which used to house the Archeology Museum, its elegant central staircase, winding upwards through the grand old house. But this time we were not heading up, instead making our way into the vaulted cellars below.

The beautiful staircase in the old museum in Apt

Back in 1972, when the building was being transformed into the museum, the curators discovered the remains of the original Theatre, hidden within its ground floor. Amazing really that the museum should have found itself in this exact spot, perhaps fate played a big part in it?

The cellar splits into two, the medieval stone vaulted structures having been been built over the remains. On one side of the cellar are the large stone steps that formed the seating area that would have been for the most important spectators, sitting closest to the stage….

The remaining seats from the theatre

And on the other side of the cellar, down another steep step, a beautiful curved stone, inner wall, which had formed part of the ‘ambulacre’. This was one of the corridors that ran around the inside of the walls at each level, allowing spectators to access the seats, with the lowest level reserved for the most important male members of the community, through to the highest level, which was for women and slaves.

The inside wall of the ambulacre

The structure meant that the different classes of people would never have to mix, each accessing their own level of seating, using different entrances and corridors.The remaining section of wall clearly shows how it was constructed with well-shaped, pointed stone on either side, and the centre filled with heavier, unshaped stones and a cement. Above this would have been the rest of the stepped seats, climbing upwards and away from the stage.

It was quite amazing to see this, and to get a sense of the size of the incredible structure that sat in the heart of the city, almost 2000 years ago. It was, in fact, around 90 metres long, 63.5 metres deep and 20 metres high, and could have seated over 6000 spectators, making it one of the biggest theatres in the region. It would have been an incredible sight for anyone arriving at the town as they passed along the Via Domitia.

Roman Apt made quite a statement

Unfortunately that proved to be the end of our tour, but it was a fascinating and eye-opening few hours, and we spent the next couple of hours, chatting about what we had seen and heard, whilst we had lunch in the nearby Place Septiers, although I found myself wondering what could be hidden under there too….

A convivial lunch, chatting about the Romans at Les Valseuses

We’ve always known that Apt and its surroundings are beautiful, but its history adds another level of interest that I had never really considered. We regularly cycle over the Pont Julien, and marvel that it has been in use since the Romans would have walked along the Via Domitia…

The Roman Pont Julien still carried cars into the early 2000’s

And have heard tales of other hidden traces of Roman Apt, in the cellars below the town houses in the heart of the old town, and the crypts under the Cathedral too….

There is more hidden history under the Cathedral

But thanks to this tour, we now have a much greater understanding of it all and feel we know the area so much better, than we ever did before…

Perhaps this should give me a clue

I will though be looking out for traces of those Roman footprints now, whenever I am out and about, looking at my feet though, rather than up at the buildings!

The Archeology Tour can only be taken by prior reservation at the moment …. details of how to book can be found here http://www.apt.fr/Visites-guidees-pour-les-groupes.html

11 thoughts on “Apta Julia – The hidden history of Apt

  1. Love the Roman history in Provence. We will pay closer attention to the details next time we visit Apt. Thanks for sharing. Is the museum open to the public?

    Liked by 1 person

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