ExploreKeith Van SickleProvencal History

Discovering the Roman Barge and Other Treasures of Arles

The Roman History of Arles

What’s 2,000 years old, 100 feet long and used to float?

If you guessed a Roman barge, you win!  And you can see one now in the Arles Museum of Antiquity.

Arles was once an important Roman town, a trading center with a major port. Barges with cargo from all over the Empire plied the waters of the Rhone River.

Around 2,000 years ago one of those barges sank. It lay there quietly, covered by mud, until scientists surveying the river discovered it about ten years ago.

You would think that a ship that old would have dissolved by then. But no! The mud had protected the wood from decay. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the wood was so weak that the barge would collapse if it were brought to the surface and dried out. What to do? Fixing this problem would cost money, and lots of it.

Roman Barge Arles Museum Antiquity

Luckily, the European Union named Marseille and Provence as the European Capital of Culture for 2013. EU money rained down from the sky, paying for the barge’s restoration plus a new wing in the museum to house it. So everything was all set, right?

Not so fast

The process of restoring the barge was complicated and experts thought it might take ten years. But they didn’t have that much time, so an incredible crash program was developed that only took two years. Impressive!

First, the barge was cut into sections and brought up from the river piece one piece at a time. This wasn’t easy, given the strong currents of the Rhone and its near-zero visibility. Next, the ship was entirely disassembled—each piece and each nail. Then a kind of resin was used to strengthen the wood. Finally, the barge was put back together.

Now you can see it in all of its glory! Well, at least as much glory as any barge can muster. Still, it is impressive to see a ship that old.

Roman Barge Arles Museum Antiquity

The barge is 102 feet long and very narrow. There is a raised section where the crew cooked and slept and—these being bored sailors and all—probably cheated at dice. Everything is in surprisingly good condition.

The museum exhibit includes an excellent 20-minute video, with English subtitles, showing the whole process by which the barge was recovered and restored. You can watch it below:

Be sure to check out the rest of the museum, with its excellent Roman mosaics and perhaps the world’s best bust of Julius Caesar.  It is definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Arles.

Roman Barge Arles Museum Antiquity

Roman Barge Arles Museum Antiquity


Practical Information:

Musée départemental Arles antique
presqu’île du cirque romain
BP 205
13 635 Arles cedex.
Tel : +33 (0)4 13 31 51 03

Closed on Tuesdays
Free entry the 1st Sunday of each month


Image Credits:

  1. Photo courtesy of Rémi Bénali – Musée départemental Arles antique – CD13
  2. Photo courtesy of Rémi Bénali – Musée départemental Arles antique – CD13
  3. Photo courtesy of Christian Rombi – Musée départemental Arles antique – CD13
  4. Photo courtesy of Keith Van Sickle
  5. Photo courtesy of Keith Van Sickle
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Keith Van Sickle

Keith Van Sickle

Keith is a technology industry veteran and lifelong traveler who got his first taste of overseas life while studying in England during college. But it was the expat assignment to Switzerland that made him really fall in love with Europe.

After returning to California, he and his wife Val dreamed of living abroad again but were unable to find another expat gig. So they decided to invent their own. Now they split their time between Silicon Valley and St-Rémy-de-Provence, delving ever deeper into what makes France so endlessly fascinating.

Keith is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, available from Amazon.

You can see all of Keith’s blog posts at Life in Provence.

2 Comments

  1. Val Poore
    November 13, 2017 at 1:47 pm — Reply

    Fantastic sight! I can’t imagine that it could have been that comfortable living on board something so limited, and it’s amazing they used them on the Rhone. Not the kindest of rivers. Fabulous restoration job!

    • CKAdmin
      November 13, 2017 at 2:15 pm — Reply

      Thanks Val I could not imagine being in one of those boats on the Rhone! The exhibit at Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques is certainly worth a visit.

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