an ephemeral and fascinating dive into time

an ephemeral and fascinating dive into time
an ephemeral and fascinating dive into time

Currently the sub-prefecture of Landes, Dax was once one of the capitals of the vast Roman Empire. Aquae Tarbellicae was erected at the beginning of our era, bordered by the Adour River and fed by its naturally hot springs. During the IVe century, the city was adorned with ramparts, an enclosure of 12 hectares today mostly demolished. The succession of peoples, which took place not without tabula rasa, then the demolisher-builder spirit of the Dacquois of recent centuries got the better of part of the ancient past of the city. To find it, however, you just have to dig.

From one empire to another

Thanks to construction sites and by extension archaeological excavations, some chapters of Dax resurface in an occasional and ephemeral manner. One of these resurgences took place over the last five months, in the heart of the city, Boulevard Saint-Pierre. Before becoming the site of a real estate complex, an area of ​​700 m² wedged between two buildings was excavated by the Éveha design office.

“We have mosaic elements, pieces painted with geometric shapes, perhaps figured scenes, cut stones. These walls were decorated »

On January 21, the team of archaeologists, armed with paintbrushes, a mechanical shovel and a theodolite (measuring instrument), began to peel away the layers of black earth and their contents, “beginning by the top “. Constrained in its width, due to the pipes of a neighboring thermal establishment, the site went deeper than planned (4 meters in places), and therefore further in time. In total, “400 distinct archaeological elements” were detected.

First recent excavation on the town planning of Dax

Brahim M’Barek, site manager, is a specialist in the architecture and town planning of the Roman world.

Isabelle Louvier/SOUTH WEST

The oldest discoveries predate the ramparts, the others provide information on life outside their perimeter. “This is the first recent extensive excavation into the town planning of Dax,” underlines its manager, Brahim M’Barek. The last one, more than twenty years ago, revealed a domus, a Roman residence, still on the same boulevard. “We have a little understanding of the organization of the place during the Roman era. We therefore have a traffic route which leads to this house. »

It remains to date the bones, human or not, with carbon 14

“Very wide” walls, which evoke “a large building”, have left some clues. “We have mosaic elements, pieces painted with geometric shapes, perhaps figured scenes, cut stones. These walls were decorated, except that they [les occupants ultérieurs] have recovered almost everything. They took the walls down to the base of the foundations and backfilled them with rotten fragments. I had never seen that,” admits the specialist in architecture and town planning of the Roman world.

32 tombs unearthed

The top of the skull and feet are often scalped by the passage of a mechanical excavator.

Isabelle Louvier/SO

The young team from the Éveha design office, which covers several specialties (anthropologists, ceramists, etc.) and different eras, also unearthed a centuries-old necropolis. 32 graves, most austere, for 34 bodies. “A cemetery that functions at least from IIIe IXe century, less episodic than we imagined. » Bracelets, pendants, fibulas, beads; some burials spoiled the researchers, who benefited from an extended excavation time. These tombs gave a vague temporal indication, like the silver denarius with the effigy of Louis I known as “the Débonnaire” (born in 778, died in 840; son of Charlemagne and also known as “the Pious”). he was king of Aquitaine until 814, then emperor of the West from 814 to his death), led astray by a Dacquois from another time. It still remains to be precisely dated, thanks to carbon-14 analyzes of the bones – human or not: “We also have two horses. »

“Not that we worked badly, but when it rains, everything falls apart, four meters deep”

Without being attached to the domus, once discovered further south, this cemetery would in any case have been established around a structure, certainly the church of Saint-Pierre de Dax, which permeated the toponymy of the district before disappearing. “We know that it was dismantled in the 12the to be moved to a village, 3 or 4 kilometers from here. Obviously, it was very close to the ramparts and there was an English threat. »


On this excavation site, by definition limited, specialists were forced, on several occasions, to limit themselves to “groups of presumptions”, without being able to go further. “Technically, there is something developing behind the plot, but as it is not prescribed…” Space and time are always lacking for archaeologists, especially when climatic conditions get involved… “The weather put us in it, with more sun we could have been more precise in the most sensitive part, in the northeast. It’s not that we worked badly, but when it rains, everything falls 4 meters deep…” And this damned rain followed them until the end.

As the construction deadline, at the end of May, approached, Éveha’s reduced team remained stuck in the mud – literally, at least its container which served as a living base. “The land is a huge field of mud which will cause us problems leaving the site. If the truck wants to collect the container, it stays there. »

Moving an excavator, which was too costly, was ruled out. Each additional cost is in fact a margin less for the archaeological studies office, which is carrying out a commercial exercise.

The result of the excavations is priceless, its execution is. “A certain cost,” notes Xavier Ponteins, who is waiting to see the building and offices of the XC Patrimoine holding company that he owns with his brother grow, where their grandfather’s house once stood, there still less than a year old. Meanwhile, a portal to Dax’s past has opened. It has just closed.


At the end of an excavation site and within the following two years, the person in charge must submit a report in order to supplement local archaeological knowledge. This is printed in several volumes for each operator, archaeologists, even “competitors”, and universities. “A local archeology enthusiast who has not been on the circuit cannot have access to it, to avoid the risk of looting,” specifies Brahim M’Barek. A digital version is also published, according to the policy of the regional service concerned.
In addition to this scientific work, data exploitation can take place. “For ten years, I was the intellectual owner. For example, I am not a specialist in cemeteries, but if someone is and is interested in our research, they can study it with my agreement. » Communities can also rely on it to communicate about their past, like Dax on his favorite period: the Roman era.



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