The Saint-Ambroix stelae

In Saint-Ambroix, they who sow the wind reap Gallo-Roman stelae…

Photograph of Excavation Two (C.1907) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

The history of the excavations

In December 1908, Mr. Bertrand and his son, who wished to extract construction materials from their land in the Saint-Hilaire area, near the Roman road Avarium-Argentomagus, made the incredible discovery of a sarcophagus and the first three limestone stelae.

Photograph of Excavation Three (C.1908) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

In the spring of 1909, the man nicknamed "Père Bertrand," or "Father Bertrand," aware that he had just made a major discovery the previous year, decided to pursue the excavations. He discovered another stela, some sarcophagi, and large stones lying face down.

Buried under a wall and in a very good state of preservation, these large stones were in fact impressive stelae from the Gallo-Roman era that had been placed in the ground as the foundations for a bu

Plan of the Bertrand and Pénin Fields by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On July 7, 1909, intrigued by the newspapers that were beginning to report the story, members of the Société des Antiquaires du Centre (the Society of Antiquaries of the Centre Region) decided to travel to the site, in Saint-Ambroix, and visit the locations.

Face-to-face with the site, they appreciated the importance of this incredible discovery, and decided to vote on a sum to offer the owner in exchange for the site.

Lettre de St Ambroix le 10 juillet 1909Musée Bertrand

On July 10, 1909, Mr. Bertrand, considering the offer too low, and thinking that he himself could get more, wrote to the Société des Antiquaires du Centre:

" I write to Mr. Secretary of the Société des Antiquaires du Centre to refuse the offer made by these gentlemen; I do not accept it. I do not think it high enough. So, I shall replace my stones, and I shall continue the excavation on my own. As and when I can; I am in no hurry. So, it is useless to go on at greater length; the offer made by the society seems to me to be worth about the same as the work I have performed. "

Photo of Excavation JJ Lericolais (C.1909) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

So, Bertrand worked to excavate the stelae buried in his field. Very quickly, as he unearthed these gigantic blocks of stone, so many articles appeared in the newspapers that the site soon became the area's main tourist attraction.

People came from all over France to see the Saint-Ambroix stelae.

Conscious of the veritable gold mine that he had just uncovered, Père Bertrand charged admission to this curious crowd.

Postcards From the Châteauroux Museum Postcards From the Châteauroux Museum (20th century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

It was not until 1912, with the generous intervention of the renowned Châteauroux industrialist Charles Balsan, that Bertrand agreed to give his discoveries to the Châteauroux museum.

In March 1913, Bertrand was finally paid 6,000 francs for the acquisition of all the stelae that had been discovered. Then, they would be displayed at the Cordeliers lapidary museum, in Châteauroux, before being distributed to the region's museums.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

What is a cinerary stela?

These Gallo-Roman tombs hold the ashes of the deceased, placed in an urn beneath the stela. These generally showed sculpted images of the deceased and their relationships (spousal,  master/servant, etc.).

Because of the large number of stelae found at the sites, as well as the presence of stelae that have not been unearthed, the theory has often been mooted that Saint-Hilaire was a center of production for them.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Stelae of couples

Today, the Châteauroux Museum possesses a wide variety of stelae, including some showing married couples.

This stela represents a young couple, a man and woman, with worn-away facial features. Both of them wear cloaks with wide sleeves.

The woman's hair is combed into narrow strips, held in a small chignon at the top of her head. This is a style inspired by Roman fashion.

We can see a small box being held against her chest, in a hand with rings.

For his part, the man holds a purse as well as a small glass, called a poculum.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On this other stela, as with many in this collection, the couple are turned slightly toward each other.

Wearing a long tunic, the woman wears her cloak like a shawl, placed on her shoulders and crossed at the chest.

Her hair is parted in the middle and falls over her shoulder, in a curl. This hairstyle is visible on other stelae, as well.

The husband wears a long cloak and holds a poculumin one hand...

...and a shovel handle in the other.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On this third stela, we find the same long coats. Also note the shawl present on the woman's shoulders.

The woman is depicted with a Roman hairstyle, with the chignon holding her narrow strips of hair.

In her hand, she holds a mappa, a kind of napkin.

The husband is represented as a young, beardless man.

He holds a round object in his hand.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On this stela, an older couple is depicted, as evidenced by their pronounced facial features.

It is surely for a couple of notable people, as the extensive, finely worked framing is accompanied by capitals in the shape of female heads.

We see the mappa held by the woman.

Her husband holds a wax tablet and a stylus case.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Like the previous couple, the sculpted figures' age is recognizable thanks to several details. Here, in addition to pronounced features of their faces (wrinkles), the man's advanced age is visible in his significant hair loss, at the crown of his head.

The couple assume a pose seen fairly often on these stelae. Turned toward each other slightly, the wife places her hand on her husband's shoulder, while his holds tools that indicate to us his occupation while he lived.

Here, the tool represented is forces, a kind of work scissors that can be used to cut cloth or sheep's wool.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

A pair of men

On this stela, rather than a man and woman, two men are represented, one a little older than the other. The man on the left has a round face, with full cheeks, and his companion has sharper features. Both men have beards.

The two are in the same position as the preceding couples, turned toward each other. The older man also has his hand on his companion's shoulder.

The man on the left holds a round object in his hands, perhaps a loaf of bread, as well as a scale.

The other holds a curious instrument: an adze, or ascia, used in woodworking.

This may be a representation of the business and woodworking occupations.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

This two-sided stela is particularly interesting among this collection.

The main niche shows a man in a loose cloak, holding a cane in both hands. His head is missing, and no trace remains on the base.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Beside him, on the right-hand side, is shown a young man, also wearing a cloak.

He is not as tall as the man in the main niche, and his face is round and beardless. In addition, we can guess that he is rather young.

He holds a jug and a bowl in his hands.

This surely represents a master and his young servant.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Stela of three

In addition to the couples, we also find stelae with three figures. This one presents what appears to be a man and woman, slightly withdrawn, framing another, older man.

Beardless both, the person in the middle appears older than the other man because of his distinct features.

The woman displays the standards of beauty of the time, with her hair parted in the middle and topped with a braid or chignon, from which a curl has escaped, on the side.

Each one holds something: a mappa for the woman, an open and upside-down purse for the figure in the middle, and some tablets for the man on the right.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

A single male figure

So far, we have seen that the stelae found at Saint-Ambroix most often represent several people, often couples; this is not the case for all the stelae, however. At the site, we have found almost as many stelae decorated with a single figure, often a man.

On this stela, the same code of representation is visible as on the group stelae. The man, hair combed forward, wears a long coat with wide sleeves.

Like the other men, he holds the tools of his trade in his hands. Here, there are a plate and a case of tablets against his chest and a stylus case in his left hand.

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On this other stela, we see the representation of a young man, round-faced and beardless.

He holds an adze in his right hand, and in his left, a piece of wood surely placed on a workbench. We can infer that the young man was a woodworker.

An interesting detail: on the niche's banner, we can read "[...]monim (entum)" or "the monument (of)...".

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

A naïve representation

On the stelae showing a single figure, we find representations of females, who, strangely, appear naïvely sculpted compared to the representations of the men.

Here, the stela shows a woman with a plainly pregnant silhouette. Her head (with large eyes and wide smile) appears disproportionate to her body.

Her hair, very different from the hair shown up to now, appears clumsily sculpted.

She holds a poculum in her hand.

With this hair and her blissful smile, the workers at the excavation reportedly nicknamed this woman "the alcoholic."

Stone of Saint-Ambroix (2nd century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

On this other stela, we again see this style: naïve, simplified, used to represent a woman.

Here, too, the head of the deceased is disproportionate to the body.

Her atrophied hands seem to hold a mappa.

The figure is simplistic, but we can nevertheless see a significant aesthetic detail: the sculptor chose to depict her with a fine necklace around her neck.

Credits: Story

Musée Bertrand de Châteauroux.

Kevin Guillebaud
Candice Signoret

Photos : © Musée Bertrand

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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