January 10th, 2012

Fishy Circumstances

Under Geneva's Cathedral

I had a scant hour of leisure and was already in Geneva's cathedral, so I followed the signs and spent it in the archeological site underneath the cathedral. To call it "underneath" isn't to do the site justice: it covers half again as much space as the cathedral above it does.

For years, this was a working dig. Only in the last six years has it opened as a seven-days-a-week museum site, beautifully presenting the physical layers of the site's - and Geneva's - earliest history, with audio-visual displays, catwalks close about and next to the site, occasional displays of selected finds, and good lighting. Commentary and most detail is provided by means of a hand-held self-prompted audio guide, which means that the site was, when I visited it on a January afternoon, extraordinarily quiet, even with a dozen or so other people scattered around on sometimes-creaking catwalks.

The site shows off everything from the remnants of the current cathedral's Gothic crypt, to the remains of three earlier cathedrals - going back to the third fourth century - and, even earlier, the remains of Roman-era buildings on the site. Little Geneva, for a time, marked the northern border of the Roman empire, with its bridge over the Rhône. The earliest residential complex in stone on the site brought in its drinking water by means of aqueduct. The current - and many previous - high altars of the cathedral above are still situated above the grave of an unknown local Allobrigian chief, as the archeologists discovered to their astonishment.

Several periods of underfloor heating mechanisms survive, including a hypocaust. Most of the early monks may have had small cells to live in, but they were small cells with underfloor heating! The extremely large mosaic floor - largely extant - which formed the base of a fifth-century bishop's welcome room, was also heated.

One of the aspects of the commentary which warmed the cockles of my heart was its modern historicity. One numbered commentary revolved around a model of early Geneva. The voice told me that it showed how much archeological evidence had uncovered in the last twenty years since this model was made. Then, it was assumed that the proto-city was built on top of the hill with a cluster of port buildings at the bottom and fields in between on the slopes; now, further digs have shown that the whole hillside was inhabited all the way down, with terracing.

There was one aspect of the site that I didn't understand. How could there have been three cathedrals on the site at once, all connected by an atrium? Three dedicated churches, sure - but three homes for three cathedra for a single bishop? I'm hoping it was a translation issue; or some major change in the structure of Christian hierarchy since the early Middle Ages.