Notre-Dame du Bourg, une vie de cathédrale [a cathedral life]
Publisher: Musée Gassendi / Laboratoire d’Archéologie Médiévale Méditerranéenne
Under the direction of Gabrielle Demians d’Archimbaud. Publication in French / 27 x 27 cm / 64 pages (illustrated)
Book published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name organised by the Musée Gassendi following excavations conducted in Notre-Dame du Bourg cathedral by the Laboratoire d’Archéologie Médiévale Méditerranéenne of Université de Provence under the direction of Gabrielle Demians d’Archimbaud and to foreshadow the completion of the cathedral’s archaeological crypt.
“A present without a past has no future” F. Braudel.
The displacement of the epicentre of villages and small towns in the Lower Provence area between the end of ancient times and the Middle Ages is a classic scenario, but it is still poorly explained. In this respect, Digne is an archetypal example.
At the outlet of the Mardaric valley, a large village was established from the 1st century AD. To judge by the excavations of the retirement home conducted by the Direction des Antiquités department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Regional Council, a few dozen metres from the facade of Notre-Dame du Bourg, or by those conducted by Mlle G. Démians d’Archimbaud in this cathedral, this village had homes of quality. However, in the 3rd century, it appears that the hydrological regime and the variations in levels of rivers changed in the area south of the Alps and that the ancient town was abandoned because of floods and/or a high level of moisture.
Where did the Gallo-Romans then move to? Perhaps onto the spur around the prison, as suggested by ancient remains discovered, or to the area of thermal springs, as shown by excavations currently in progress. In any case, the original location remained attractive, because, from the 5th century, a religious building was established there, while the locality was perhaps still half-abandoned. This first church was used for many years. Around 1185, it was decided to reconstruct the monument. Curiously, this reconstruction did not erase the past and make a fresh start; on the contrary, it took it into account by enlarging the previous constructions.
In the surrounding area, life continued: the retirement home excavations reveal considerable occupation that was to last until the 16th century. But occasional excavations performed at the site of the Hôtel du Département show that, from the 13th century, the promontory was enclosed by ramparts and that a small town, perhaps a bishopric, was sited there.
The church, at the outlet of a valley, far from the fortified town, became vulnerable. Therefore, from the 14th century, it was fortified. Despite these precautions, it suffered terribly from the torment of wars of religion. Documents of the period describe it with collapsed vaults and a dilapidated roof leaking everywhere. Repair was necessary, but it was done so clumsily that the building’s stability was very affected.
Therefore, in recent years, by agreement with the City of Digne, the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles (the regional authority for Conservation of Historic Buildings & Monuments) took the decision to carry out major restoration, among other things, in order to stop the process of the building’s destabilisation, or to totally eradicate it. M. Flavigny, Chief Architect of Historic Monuments, was appointed in charge of the operation. After approval by the Historic Monuments general inspection service and examination by the High Commission, the renovation scheme was chosen to meet the aim of returning to the level of the 12th century floor that had been gradually built up to resist dampness, and the Direction des Antiquités department intervened to conduct archaeological excavations.
The surveys performed in 1946 by Mr Delmas and Mr Irigoin, especially at the location of the external land drains, had revealed the interest of the cathedral’s basement, which was confirmed by a survey performed in 1983/1984 by Mlle G. Démians d’Archimbaud in order to study the relevance of the building’s stratigraphy.
Considering the major interest of the results obtained during this first research, it was decided to conduct a complete excavation of the church’s interior and as far as ancient floor levels, 5 metres below the last floor paving!
As a result of the spectacular nature of the remains uncovered (interlocking of the successive churches, tombs, bell moulds,, etc.), their certain historical importance and their clear educational aspect, the Mayor of Digne wished to make them one of the town’s main attractions. Therefore an archaeological crypt project was developed under the cathedral floor where visitors can learn about the building’s continuity – and about history – in an extremely visual and educational way. This project, on which work is starting, is also a real technical feat, because the depth of the excavations at some places did not allow the floor slab to be more than around ten centimetres thick (including ducts and the built-in heating network!).
As clearly shown by archaeological activity in the year 1989/1990, archaeology is now an integral part of French people’s preoccupations. Since a few decades ago, this science, which was formerly presented as dull and reserved for the initiated, has become an important subject for tourism and the media. Informing as wide a public as possible of archaeological operations and their results is the logical outcome of the coherent archaeological policy that the State implements with all its partners. Note that the Notre-Dame du Bourg operation was a good example of collaboration between all parties concerned. Firstly, between the funding bodies: the State, the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence Département and the City of Digne contributed respectively 50%, 25% and 25% of the 13 million francs for the operation. Between the public agencies and departments: the Monuments Historiques and Direction des Antiquités agencies, and the City of Digne departments which had to manage a complex, sensitive project. Lastly, between the scientists and the project manager, Mr Flavigny. Among the scientists, one must not forget those of the Direction des Antiquités department who contributed largely to the completion of the operation, without omitting all the talent and devotion of Mlle G. Démians d’Archimbaud, Professor at Aix-en-Provence University and bearer of the excavation permit, without which none of all this would have been possible. This has been a long, costly, but scientifically important operation which will certainly mark the annals of French archaeology and of France’s Historic Monuments by its exemplary innovative aspect. But it is also a great wager on the future decided by the Mayor of Digne which, we are sure, has already been won.
Jean-Paul Jacob, Director, Antiquités de Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
François Goven, Regional Curator of Historic Buildings & Monuments