Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25, 2011: Grenoble - St. Laurent Crypts

Today I finally visited the St. Laurent Crypts. I had been waiting for this archaeological museum to re-open to the public, and it finally did a few weeks ago. What a great place - this may well be my favourite museum that I've visited in France. Its website is also bizarrely difficult to turn up in a Google search, so here's the link.

The museum is built at the site of a long-standing burial ground in Grenoble, in use since the 5th century AD, when Grenoble was Cularo, a Roman colony. There have been a series of churches on the site through the centuries, and there is still one there today. However, a few decades ago it was realized that the archaeological importance of the continuous record of burial practices outweighed the significance of the church. So the church was deconsecrated and they dug right through its floor to uncover the burials beneath and around it. They've just recently expanded the museum with a great contemporary addition of stairs, platforms and protective covers that allows visitors to get up close to all the finds.

The museum was free, and there was an excellent audio guide in English. There was also a video detailing the history of the site and interactive touchscreens with more information at various stations, so I had the opportunity to learn far more than I have at some other museums in France. And the architecture is quite bold - the juxtaposition of old and new, and the willingness to let visitors get so close to these very unique finds. I loved the way the 3D animation started off by explaining that belief in the afterlife was a natural consequence of early human society's uncertainty and difficulties - you would never have heard that kind of explanation in a museum housed in a former church in America!

The museum visit starts with an audio voiceover describing the various churches throughout the centuries - their outlines are mapped out on the archaeological remains under the church's former floor by different coloured lights

Standing only inches above human remains

Carvings from the church, made with local "molasses" stone - too soft to withstand the weathering outdoors any longer

The church's painted ceiling

Contemporary glass staircase floats through an ancient stone tunnel

Reconstruction of a statue

Burials - some under terracotta roofing tiles, others in pits dug in the earth - only the rich had solid stone tombs to protect their remains

The sense of the passage of time is overwhelming - this slice down through the burial grounds reveals gnarled tree roots, pottery shards, and numerous human bones poking out of the earth

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