Roman Venus Statues Found Amongst the Garbage
It has often been said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. A team of archaeologists in France recently offered definitive proof of this old aphorism, when they discovered a remarkable cache of 1,800-year-old Gallo-Roman artifacts buried in an old Roman shale quarry that had been repurposed as a trash pit many centuries ago.
The shale quarry turned archaeological gold mine was found in northwestern France in the city of Rennes, a settlement known to have been founded by the Romans around 100 AD.
Most notable among the discarded items unearthed were two small statues of the Roman goddess Venus, which were found mixed in with more mundane items like coins, clothing pins and pieces of pottery.
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What the Ancient Romans Left Behind at Rennes
When it was first constructed, Rennes was known by the Romans as Condate Riedonum. The houses, public structures and city walls at this new, second-century settlement were all constructed from stone, and as a result it was necessary to open a rock quarry nearby.
While no one was exactly sure where this quarry might have been located, it was the announcement of a development project in the area that gave archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research (Inrap) the opportunity they’d been seeking to search for it. Earlier this month, Inrap announced that their exploratory excavations had indeed revealed the location of the quarry in Rennes, which it turned out had long ago been repurposed for the disposal of rubbish.
View of the excavation of the shale quarry in Rennes. (© Nicolas Ménez/ Inrap)
The ancient quarry was found just outside the northern boundary of Rennes, at a site identified as rue d'Antrain. Working within an excavation area measuring approximately 35,000 square feet (3,250 square meters), the archaeologists uncovered a rock removal site that was approximately 6.5 feet (two meters) deep. Slabs of stone had been cut or chipped out in successive stages, until the best rock for construction had apparently all been extracted.
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The Romans’ rock of choice from this site was schist, a type of stone that has been hardened through exposure to high pressure and heat. Schist was frequently used in building construction in ancient times, and it played a major role in the building of the settlement that ultimately became the city of Rennes.
Curious about what kind of artifacts they might find, the archaeologists began digging more deeply into the accumulated piles of trash, which dated as far back as the second century AD. Much to their delight, they unearthed a virtual treasure trove of artifacts left behind by the Romans in the second and third centuries AD. This included the two discarded Venus statues, made in honor of a goddess who represented love and beauty, but also stood as a symbol of Roman imperial power.
"The Romans are famous for developing quarries all over the Mediterranean," Jason Farr, a Roman archaeologist from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told Live Science. Farr was not involved in the excavations at Rennes, but is an expert on ancient quarries.
“Most quarries in the Roman world would have been local affairs, focused on supplying building stone in bulk to nearby towns and farms,” he explained. “The concrete walls favored by the Romans required a great deal of stone.”
Eventually all the usable stone was harvested from the quarry at Rennes. It was then that people first began dumping old and disposable items there.
"Because they were so close to towns, quarries were frequently reused," Farr noted. "Open pit quarries made for ideal trash dumps."
While the abandoned and discarded items found at the Rennes quarry might have outlived their usefulness from the Roman perspective, for the Inrap archaeologists these 1,800-year-old artifacts represented a fresh and exciting find.
The collection included the usual assortment of ceramic fragments from broken pots and plates, along with a few ancient coins, some clothing pins and several terracotta statuettes in the four-inch (10-centimeter) tall range. The latter included the two Venus statues, which depicted the goddess in different roles.
The fragment of the second Venus, a Venus genetrix statue, that was found at Rennes. (© Emmanuelle Collado/INRAP)
One of the small statues was of a type known as Venus genetrix or mother-goddess. Made between the first and second century AD, it shows the goddess’s torso draped in fabric. She is depicted holding her hair in place, even though it is already supported by a large headdress. The second statue, known as Venus anadyomene, shows a nude Venus rising from the sea and wringing the water out of her hair.
An archaeologist excavates a 1st century potters kiln at the Rennes site. (© Emmanuelle Collado/INRAP)
Secrets of Roman Quarrying Practices Uncovered
The abandoned quarry wasn’t destined to be used as a dump forever. By the 14th century it was filled in and had been apparently redeveloped as some type of commercial zone. The Inrap archaeologists unearthed the remains of ovens, wells and wooden structures that suggest the area was used as a site for craft production starting sometime in the medieval period. They also dug up the remnants of an underground plumbing pipe from the 17th century, which was used to supply the city of Rennes with water at that time.
While the Inrap excavations have turned up an impressive collection of ancient Roman artifacts, what researchers learn from studying Roman quarrying methods will be just as valuable. Through a careful analysis of the activity that occurred at the site when Rennes was being constructed, they will be able to discover more about Roman tools, extraction methods and logistical operations.
"Relatively few Roman-period quarries for 'mundane' building stone have been excavated," Farr said, adding that the quarry at Rennes "is all the more exciting because of its reuse as a trash dump, which is a veritable gold mine of information on ancient life. There really is a lot we can learn here."
Top image: Venus statues found at Roman quarry in Rennes. Source: © Emmanuelle Collado/INRAP
By Nathan Falde