Andernos-les-Bains is a resort on the Bassin d’Arcachon which is possibly best-known for its jetty , the longest of its type in Europe ...

The Gallo-Roman villa with a view in Andernos-les-Bains

Andernos-les-Bains is a resort on the Bassin d’Arcachon which is possibly best-known for its jetty, the longest of its type in Europe (232 metres!). Today though, we are investigating the ruins of a Gallo-Roman villa that can be viewed alongside Saint-Éloi church, which overlooks the beach just a short distance to the north of the town centre.

The church dates back to the 11th century and, over the centuries, storms have caused the shoreline to move and the Arcachon bay waters have gradually gained ground. It has been established that, as recently as the early 19th century, the church lay 100 metres inland, surrounded by its cemetery.

A little later, in 1850, a builder by the name of Jacques Hazera literally unearthed huge 1-metre-thick blocks of white stone. He later became mayor of the town and was authorised to utilise the stone for building purposes, quarrying and selling it on to local entrepreneurs. This practice continued for 20 years and, mystifyingly, there is now no known trace of the usage of this unique stone… which it later transpired was the remains of a 4th-century Gallo-Roman villa. 

The church and cemetery as they looked around 1900, source: Mémoire d'Andernos document.
It wasn’t until 1900 that the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle began to be pieced together. The cemetery was now being regularly flooded by the waters of the bay. What is more, it had become a crowded place with, according to some reports, many of the latter deceased being buried vertically rather than horizontally! An extension was out of the question, so the town decided to create a new cemetery, relocate the bodies of those with surviving descendants… and to leave the others where they were! The area became an ominous wasteland where schoolchildren would congregate to play with the human bones they found there… but one Louis David, who was now mayor of Andernos, decided enough was enough and rolled out a project to convert the area into a park.

The 1903 archaeological digs in progress, source: Mémoire d'Andernos document.

Work began in 1902 and, in amongst the skulls and bones, the remains of these ancient walls were found. Louis David halted work on the park and sought advice from the Société Historique de Bordeaux who sent one Aurélien de Sarrau, an amateur archaeologist and friend of Louis David, to the site to investigate. De Sarrau soon realised the significance of the find and applied for subsidies to carry out digs there in 1903. They were to continue for two years until funds ran out, generating a great deal of interest in the process (recent Invisible Bordeaux subject, the historian Camille Jullian, corresponded regularly with De Sarrau to keep track of progress).

The scene 110 years later. Is that the same tree in the background?
A circular wall was unearthed leading to initial theories that it may have been an ancient tower, light-house or spa. Other discoveries included fragments of pottery and of marble columns; but instead of being shared and exhibited, most of these were hoarded at De Sarrau’s holiday home in nearby Taussat.

The (initial) verdict, reached on the basis of some inscriptions which were found, was that the building had been a 5th-century Christian basilica, and that is how it was labelled by the “Bâtiments de France” institute when the site was registered as an historical monument in 1932. Nothing much then changed until the 1980s when deputy mayor Jean Dumas took an interest in the site and sought the return of finds from the 1903 digs from a museum in Arcachon, as well as recovering the objects that De Sarrau had “stored” at home. These are now on display at the municipal museum in Andernos, in the house formerly occupied by Louis David.

The subject was picked up by Madeleine Gauthier, a researcher at the Bordeaux branch of national scientific research centre CNRS.  Visiting the site with colleagues as part of a nationwide inventory operation, she called into question the previous theories, pinpointing hard evidence to prove that the ruins were those of a typical 4th-century villa or palace (examples of which can also be seen in Saint-Émilion and Plassac): an inner three-bay nave flanked by an apse and buttress wall, the bases of columns where an inner archway may have stood, and a façade gallery with traces of the foundations of decorative features such as statues or columns.

These findings gave the site a second wind and Andernos began to widely promote its Gallo-Roman past, adding information panels, viewing platforms, floodlighting and wooden steps down into the “villa”, not to mention putting up signposts to the site throughout the town. When the new installations were completed in 2007, the story garnered national exposure on TV news programmes.

Peculiarly, the villa also gave rise to another theory which personally strikes me as surprising given that the actual purpose of this 4th-century building was only discovered 20 years ago: it may have been the residence of a wealthy man named Dernus, and the surrounding area thus became referred to as “En Dernus”… and subsequently "Andernos"! This theory is mentioned in official municipal literature and by other sources, although elsewhere it is claimed the name simply derives from  "Andernus", meaning "alone".

The ruins continue to attract a steady stream of casual visitors, many of whom are locals out enjoying the sea air, the sight of the fishing huts and the Andernos waterfront. Others though may just be passing through: the site also happens to be on the coastline path of Saint James’ Way pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain…

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