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In Dijon, Where Mustard Rules, You Can Also Meet an Ancient Goddess


In Dijon, Where Mustard Rules, You Can Also Meet an Ancient Goddess

DIJON, France — Say “Dijon,” and it is likely that the word mustard will spring to mind. You can enjoy free tastings and buy just about any flavor of mustard (from cassis to horseradish) in the pedestrian medieval center of this sleepy city in Burgundy wine country. But few know that most of the mustard seed now used in making Dijon mustard comes from Canada (the seed that grows here is mostly used to produce Moutarde de Bourgogne — mustard of Burgundy).

What you will find in Dijon is a little-visited archaeological museum with rare treasures from the Celtic and Gallo-Roman world.

The Musée Archéologique is housed in the main wing of what was once the St.-Bénigne Benedictine abbey, set in a garden next door to the St.-Bénigne Cathedral, the tallest building in the city. The museum is worth a visit just to see the grand stone hall with two rows of columns and high Gothic arches that once served as the abbey’s dormitory.

The museum itself, which I encountered as I explored the region for a book on the Seine, is a modest, low-budget affair — with no audio guides, no 3-D simulations, no museum catalog and very few trinkets and souvenirs to buy.

Its collections date from prehistory to the Middle Ages and include several hundred locally discovered Bronze-Age objects such as leggings decorated with etched geometric motifs; household items, jewelry and weapons from the ancient Celts; a Gallo-Roman frieze representing the mother-goddesses of Alesia; and Merovingian sarcophagi from the fifth and sixth centuries.

But the star attraction is a 2,000-year-old bronze statue of the Gallo-Roman goddess Sequana with the remains of what was once a vast healing temple at the source of the Seine River less than an hour’s drive away.

Even before the Romans came to rule over Gaul, pilgrims came from as far as the Mediterranean and what is now the English Channel to pray to her for a cure, consult the pagan priests, stay for a short visit, give thanks. They threw “ex votos,” or votive offerings, in wood, stone and bronze into a sacred healing pool.

Over time, the Gauls and then the Romans expanded the temple complex, which is believed to have been destroyed in the fourth or fifth century. The museum has reconstructed in a color drawing what the temple looked like, including a processional walkway; the main shrine; a portico surrounding the main spring; an oval basin containing sacred water; terraces; gardens; and secondary buildings that could have been shops.

From the mid-19th century on, archaeologists began to comb through the site where the temple complex once stood. Their excavations yielded odd treasures, including the statue of Sequana, more than 800 third- and fourth-century Roman bronze coins, and 1,500 rare ex votos. Some of the ex votos date from at least 150 B.C. — before the Roman conquest. Many are on display at the museum.

The largest number of offerings were carved from soft limestone that was available in the area. Most of them represented body parts thought to need healing: heads, eyes, breasts, arms, legs, and sexual and internal organs.

Another group consists of nearly life-size representations of pilgrims hewn from chunks of oak. They are part of the largest collection of wooden Gallic sculptures ever found, according to research by Simone-Antoinette Deyts, the archaeologist who studied the site for years.

The museum, working with archaeologists over the years, has struggled to interpret the meaning of the offerings. Statuettes of women with big bellies and of couples locked in embrace suggested a desire for a child. Statuettes of children holding puppies or rabbits may have been offerings from parents giving thanks. One figure — with breasts and a penis — was thought to have represented a hermaphrodite. A head without a mouth or ears could have signaled deafness, and a head wrapped in a towel, migraines.

Apparently, the temple employed artisans who mass-produced some of the offerings: small, thin bronze plaques of body parts crudely hammered on demand for the pilgrims.

There are also stone busts or full-figured sculptures up to three feet tall that represented pilgrims who were either worshiping or honoring Sequana.

For me, the most impressive object is the 18.5-inch bronze statue of Sequana herself. Slim and small-breasted, she wears a flowing dress that exposes her forearms and part of her chest and falls in pleats to the floor, revealing the tips of her pointed slippers. A large, broad crown partly covers her wavy hair, which is parted in the middle and tied at the back of her neck. Long tendrils frame her face.

She is young, with large eyes and refined features, and wears a look of anticipation. She stands in a boat, her forearms outstretched as if in a gesture of welcome. The prow of her boat is the head of a duck that holds a round object — a pomegranate, perhaps — in its long bill; the stern is the duck’s upswept tail.

“I find her superb,” Frédérique Bouvard, a curator, told me during one visit. “She is our Mona Lisa.”

A fictionalized 18th-century story about Sequana turned her into a proto-feminist survivor who escaped the clutches of a lascivious Neptune by transforming herself into the Seine River. (The Seine was initially called Sequana.) The story is woven into the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, who succumbed to Hades and had to spend much of her life trapped in the underworld. Unlike Persephone, who fell victim to her abductor, Sequana escaped.

More famous than the Musée Archéologique is the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Founded in 1787, it has recently reopened after an extensive renovation and is considered one of France’s most beautiful museums. It includes objects from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, de La Tour, Tiepolo, Delacroix, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Cross and Rouault.

But if you have only one museum in Dijon to visit, make it the Musée Archéologique. Even passionate French art lovers do not know the story of Sequana and the offerings that were given to her; it is a journey deep into a secret history of France.

I sometimes fantasize about making Sequana, a minor and forgotten regional goddess, world famous. A pre-Christian healing goddess with no ties to any living religion, she would fit nicely into the official French policy that reveres the republican ideal. She could be the secular version of Joan of Arc, the warrior-martyr, and of Our Lady of Lourdes, the miracle worker. She could become the most important female icon in France.

Elaine Sciolino is the author of “The Seine: The River That Made Paris,” to be published Oct. 29.

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