In a small town in the South of France, a team of archaeologists are digging for ancient secrets. There are rumors that a lost city is buried nearby, but nobody has ever found it. Now, under the earth, they discover the tiles of a great, intricate mosaic. Have they finally uncovered the mysterious Ucetia? And if so, what can they learn about its past?
The city of Nîmes in the Occitane region of France is famed for its connections to the Roman Empire. In fact, 2,000 years ago it was considered one of the most significant cities in the country. Even today, visitors can see plenty of evidence to support this claim, including a vast amphitheater, an ancient aqueduct and among the most immaculately preserved Roman temples on the planet.
Alongside the many archaeological treasures discovered at Nîmes over the years is a stela, or inscribed stone. On it is written the names of 12 Roman towns, all thought to be located nearby. And one of them, called Ucetia, has remained a mystery for many centuries.
Although archaeologists had theorized that the name Ucetia referred to the small town now known as Uzès, around 15 miles north of Nîmes, they had scant evidence to back up their claims. Indeed, aside from a few pieces of a mosaic, no other objects from Ucetia had ever been found.
In October 2016 all that changed. Local authorities in Nîmes planned to start work on a new school complex, and they consequently called in the National Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research, or INRAP, to assess the area. Understandably, they wanted to be sure that construction would not damage any valuable artifacts.
When Philippe Cayn and his team arrived, they soon discovered that the area had first been inhabited in the 1st century BC. What’s more, they believed that they had finally found evidence of Ucetia – a town about which so little had previously been known.
In fact, the researchers were able to determine that a settlement had existed there from the 1st through to the 7th centuries AD. And, amazingly, some of the structures they found even dated back to a time before the Romans conquered France.
For example, the team unearthed evidence that a bread oven had once existed there, and it appeared that it had later been replaced by a huge ceramic vessel. Yet however fascinating these discoveries were, the real star of the show was what the archeologists found in the floor of a large south-facing building covering some 2,500 square feet.
This structure is believed to date from the 1st century, not long after the Romans had colonized the area. Furthermore, it features a row of columns, which led archaeologists to suspect that it was once used as a public building. And, intriguingly, while two of the four rooms were found to be paved with concrete, one of them showcases an intricate mosaic set into the floor.
On closer inspection, the archaeologists actually discovered that there are two separate mosaics, each decorated in complex patterns. And at the center of both they identified a medallion design featuring images of chevrons, rays and crowns. Additionally, one of the mosaics was found to boast the likenesses of four animals, each recreated in multi-colored tiles.
Gradually, archaeologists uncovered images of a fawn, a duck, an owl and an eagle, arranged in each of the four corners of the mosaic. But it wasn’t just the scale and detail of the artwork that impressed the experts. It was also the fact that the work was created in a style not typically seen in the Roman Empire for another two centuries.
In fact, archaeologists believe that the Ucetia mosaic could represent one of the first ever examples of this particular style. “This kind of elaborate mosaic pattern is often found in the Roman world in the 1st and 2nd centuries,” Cayn said in a March 2017 interview with the IBTimes UK. “But this one dates back to about 200 years before that, so this is surprising.”
Meanwhile, although the style of the building suggests that the mosaic was part of a public structure, archaeologists have not yet discounted the possibility that it may have belonged to an elaborate private home. “True, not many people would have been able to live in such a large building,” Cayn admitted. “But it’s possible that the owner of these mosaics was quite rich.”
As well as the mosaic, archaeologists also discovered a large structure thought to have been used for wine production, while at some point a complex heating system had been installed. What’s more, experts believe that the area was regularly inhabited for at least 700 years.
Sadly, however, archaeologists may be limited in what else they can discover about the site. Apparently, back in the 17th century, a defensive moat was constructed in the area, and unfortunately this is thought to have destroyed many of the ancient ruins that lay there.
Yet despite this, it’s possible to draw upon what we know about the Roman Empire to build up a picture of what life might have been like in Ucetia 2,000 years ago. Starting in 121 BC, the Romans began to defeat the native Celts and take over much of Western Europe.
At some point before 28 BC, moreover, the Romans founded a colony at Nîmes. Soon, it had developed into a bustling city home to some 60,000 people. And over time, it became the administrative center of southern Gaul, which is now the South of France.
As Nîmes thrived, it is thought to have taken on authority over the surrounding towns – including Ucetia. In fact, the Romans built an aqueduct there tasked with carrying water some 30 miles to Nîmes. And today, this magnificent feat of engineering is a World Heritage Site.
Over time, however, the area changed almost beyond recognition. Nîmes became a bustling modern town, while Ucetia was largely buried beneath present-day Uzès. But these recent excavations have allowed archaeologists to rediscover the civilization that once thrived here.
Currently, excavations are beginning in a nearby area that is thought to contain more relics from the Roman Empire. These are believed to include the ruins of roads and carriageways dating back to the 2nd century. So are there more revelations yet to come from the ancient city of Ucetia? Only time will tell.