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Archaeology

The Source of the Seine

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Seine River Source, Burgundy, France
Entrance to the Source of the Seine

The famous River Seine rises in relative obscurity today in north east Burgundy. Following the rusty signs through sparsely populated villages it is something of a surprise to arrive at a railinged enclosure announcing that it is part of ‘La Ville de Paris’ – and not part of the Department of the Côte d’Or at all. Park in the country lane and go in through the gate.

After descending a little hill you will see a small garden shed. During the season, and possibly at weekends and on public holidays, it may be open. The shed houses a few postcards and plans of the site, and exhorts you with a yellowing notice pinned inside the window, to visit the museum in Dijon which displays all the exciting finds resulting from excavations there. There is no charge to ‘go in’. Follow the little stream up the gentle valley. You come to a boggy pool then cross over a small stone bridge, and on a little further to the man-made ‘grotto’ (1868 – Napoleon’s orders) complete with reclining nymph put there by Dijon sculptor Auban in 1934. There was a previous nymph by François Jouffroy. No one seems to know what happened to her.

But this low-key approach was not always the case as the modest little place started out as the site of the sacred pool of Sequana – the celebrated healing Goddess of Burgundy!

Source of the Seine, Burgundy, France
The Nymph in the Grotto

Take yourself back to Celtic times in Burgundy. The site was a major destination for a heaving mass of pilgrims, with all the paraphernalia that goes with them: hostelleries; stalls selling votaries; food; wine; bathing houses etc. The pilgrims come, full of hope, for a cure for their ailments or for those of loved ones. We can only imagine the festivities, rites and rituals as the Celts wrote nothing down, but it has been possible to date the coins and little ex votos of stone and wood found in vast numbers (upwards of 1500) to at least 150 BCE – before the Roman conquest.

Celts were fascinated by springs. Perhaps it’s the magical way they bubble continuously out of the earth. All over Burgundy there are wells and springs dedicated to their numerous deities – almost all of which were gods of healing and fertility. Sequana has been found only to be associated with the source of the Seine, whereas other gods, such as Borvo, gave their names to others over a wide area – Bourbon-Lancy, Bourbon-l’Archambault, Bourbon-les-Bains. The Springs of Borvo are to be found at St. Moré.

The ex votos have great charm as objets d’art but they also tell the stories of the pilgrims – their health problems – and their offerings of thanks. The idea was that you placed a little effigy of the ailing part (an ear, foot, leg, lung, head etc. etc.) into the pool for Sequana to work her magic. Stone statuettes of children holding puppies or rabbits suggest that these might have been offerings of thanks. Ex votos of women with large bellies, or couples entwined together, or swaddled babies suggest Sequana’s function as fertility goddess. There are also faces, torsos and abstract sculptures whose meanings are not clear. The objects were found in the boggy pond which may once have been the ritual bathing pool. In the water-logged earth the wooden sculptures were as well-preserved as the stone and bronze. In 1932 the famous bronze of Sequana herself – in a boat with swans’ heads – was discovered by Henry Corot.

Celtic Goddess Sequana, Burgundy, France
Bronze Statue of Sequana

The Sequana finds are in the Musée Archéologique de Dijon, but many fascinating ex votos discovered in other wells and springs in the Châtillonais can be seen at the museum in Châtillon-sur-Seine when you visit the amazing ‘Treasure of Vix’.

The Ville de Paris knew what it was doing when it sequestered the three or four hectares surrounding Sequana’s pool in 1867. How clever of Paris to have founded itself by a river with such auspicious beginnings.


Marilyn Floyde

Directions

Take the RN 71 between Dijon and Châtillon-sur-Seine. The nearest village is St-Germain-Source-Seine which is west of the RN 71. Take the D103 off the road at Chanceaux and follow the signs.

Places to visit nearby