Magazine article History Today

Switzerland's Roman Past

Magazine article History Today

Switzerland's Roman Past

Article excerpt

A world away from traditional visitor images of winter holidays and cuckoo clocks, new museum and excavation developments are underlining the significance of Switzerland's Roman past and inheritance.

The most striking recent example is the opening of a new museum in Lausanne's suburb of Vidy, highlighting the discovery of a substantial Roman settlement by the shores of the lake. The new museum, which cost nearly [pound]2 million, was developed in close collaboration between architects, designers and archaeologists. It is constructed around two substantial in situ remains of the Roman settlement of Lousanna which include a striking fragment of coloured mural painting, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

The remainder of the ground floor is taken up with artefacts recovered over the past sixty years in and around Lausanne. Substantial further evidence as to the extent of Lousanna was provided when road and building construction in the 1980s threw up the remains of a temple, cellars and other buildings in the area adjacent to the nearby headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. These have been incorporated into an 'archaeological promenade' in and around the area leading up to the museum.

Upstairs in the museum a temporary exhibition (until January 1995) aims to reconstruct everyday life in the Roman 'vicus' of Lousanna -- based around two 'families' (whose names and details have been 'assembled' from graffiti and inscriptions found in the excavations) those of 'Verecundus' and 'Albus', who lived successively at the site in the first century AD.

The proximity of the lake and good communications assisted the rapid commercial development of Lousanna after Switzerland was absorbed into the Roman empire in 16 BC. The objects found -- amphorae, bronze cooking pots and utensils, ironware and working implements and glass, testify to the degree of sophistication and skill reached in the settlement, while a striking stone representation on a capital on the ground floor of the museum -- of a local horned Celtic water-god -- is a testament to the fusion of Roman culture with that of the native Helvetii.

Residence by the lakeside at Vidy was continuous -- as proved by coin deposits of the emperor Honorius (395-423) -- until in the face of repeated attacks by the Alemanni from the north, the inhabitants moved in the fifth century to the higher ground which today constitutes the cite or centre of modern-day Lausanne. The walls of the town are built with stone taken from the Roman lakeside settlement.

The capital of Roman Switzerland was not Lousanna but the city of Aventicum, some 60 kilometres to the north-east. Today the town of Avenches at the intersection of the French- and German-speaking areas of Switzerland on the edge of Lake Morat is one of the country's richest archaeological sites.

In fact the very extensiveness of the aboveground remains of Aventicum contributed to its depradation until late in the nineteenth century, with cartloads of stone from its 5.6 kilometre wall being used in road construction. Perhaps Aventicum's single most impressive surviving building, a 100 by 86 metre amphitheatre with seating for some 8,000 spectators, narrowly escaped the construction of a new road along its main axis in 1826. It was saved through the intervention of the curator of the local museum for Roman finds, F. …

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