Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Grenoble Archaeological Museum | The Church & graveyard





In recent posts, I’ve concentrated on some of the treasures on display at the Musee de l'Ancien Eveche, but now I want to turn my attention to the wonderful Grenoble Archaeological Museum. If one were to be pedantic, I’m sure the case could be made that the museum is slightly miss-titled – it’s not so much a museum dedicated to the archaeology of Grenoble, but to the historic church site of Saint-Laurent. However, it’s just as true to say that the archaeology of Saint-Laurent is in no small part, the archaeology of Grenoble too. The church as it survives today is a intricate set of building phases and burial activity. However, the core upstanding structure is Romanesque (12th century) and the burials stretch back to the Gallo-Roman period (4th century). So far, so good! But what really sets Saint-Laurent apart from … well, pretty much anything else … is that fact that it has a surviving Merovingian crypt from the 6th century. Coming from Irish archaeology, where even ruins of anything before the 10th century are relatively rare, a complete 6th century crypt never ceases to amaze me!

Exterior of the crypt

The site has been investigated in one form or another since the early 19th century, and the crypt was rediscovered in 1803. Activism by a number of prominent individuals (including Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac, older brother of Jean-François “Rosetta Stone” Champollion) led to the crypt being recognised as an historic monument in 1850. This protection was extended to the whole site in 1977 and a spectacular series of excavations began in 1983, followed by its opening to the public as a museum in 1986. When I first visited, in 2000, parts of the excavated cemetery withing the former cloister were roofed with corrugated plastic sheeting on a framework of scaffolding poles. It gave the area a feeling that the archaeologists had just left for their tea break and, if you could just find it, they were sitting chatting happily. The museum closed in 2003 for extensive renovations, only reopening in 2011. While I loved the older version of the museum, this new & improved facility is simply stunning. There are new displays; an excellent history of the site projected on one wall of the church; and a new glass roof over the excavated portion of the cemetery. This latter area still retains the set dressing of delicately placed buckets and clip-boards of context sheets and manages to retain the ‘archaeologists will be back in 20 minutes’ look.

Graveyard as photographed in 2000
The overviews of church interior show how the later floor levels have been excavated away, exposing the domed top of the 6th century crypt. Some of the sarcophagi here date to the 5th and 6th centuries. At the eastern end, the 18th century altar by Francesco Tanzi remains in place.


Excavations across the complex have uncovered some 1500 human burials, ranging in date from the 4th to the 18th centuries. One particularly densely used and reused area was the site of the former cloister. Analysis of the burials has shown that a variety of burial forms were used over time. Some that can be seen in the images here include simple stone-lined and plain graves. However, I find the one that looks like a terracotta land-drain fascinating. It appears that a body – probably wrapped in a shroud – was laid on a series of flat tiles. Further tiles were then placed one either side to form a triangular structure over the body, in lieu of a coffin. The whole was capped with a row of semi-circular sectioned tiles to hold it together before the grave cut was backfilled.


Graveyard as photographed in 2000

Graveyard as photographed in 2000