Pont du Gard

Our next adventure from Sommières took us to just beyond Nimes to the Pont du Gard. Now all of you will have to think back to your old social studies textbook. Remember the picture from the section on Rome? The text always talked about the amazing aqueducts of the Romans, how they carried water from high in the far away mountains to the big cities so that all those Romans could drink and bathe to their hearts’ content. Well, the Pont du Gard is the aqueduct in about 95% of those pictures. And it’s in France! Once again one of the best-preserved structures from Rome’s ancient heritage lies in France, not in Rome.

The Pont du Gard is a bridge the Romans built to carry water across a canyon where the Gard River flows. It was part of a 31 mile aqueduct built to carry water from a spring at Fontaine d’Eure near the city of Uzès to the 50,000 citizens of Nimes. As the crow flies it is only about 16 miles, but in order to minimize the need for unnecessary construction, the Romans planned for most of the aqueduct to meander around hills and valleys. What’s really amazing about the engineering of this aqueduct system is that there is only a 40-foot drop in elevation between the source near Uzès and its final destination in Nimes. It dropped only one inch every 350 feet and provided Nimes with about nine million gallons of water per day! It was completed around AD 50.

There are a few other remaining bridges and tunnels from this amazing aqueduct system, but the Pont du Gard is by far the largest and best preserved. It stands about 150 feet high. The only Roman structure taller than the Pont du Gard is the Colosseum, and it’s only about 10 feet taller. Originally it was about 1,100 feet long, but over the centuries the ends of it have been hauled away to build other buildings. There are three levels of arches built one upon the other. The largest arch on the lowest level, directly above the river, spans about 80 feet -the largest ever built by the Romans. The mid-level arches span about 50 feet, and the top-level arches are about 15 feet across. On top of this uppermost level is the actual aqueduct, a canal about six feet tall and four and a half feet wide. A stone lid covered the canal completing the structure.

The random blocks of stone sticking out from the sides of the arch columns are the remains of the support structure used to hold the arch pieces together until the keystone was put in place. These supports were used on most large Roman building projects and later removed once construction was completed. For the Pont they were left in place to assist builders with a support structure in anticipation of future repairs.

Another fun feature of the Pont du Gard it the graffiti carved into the arch columns. For centuries France had a guild of highly respected stone, metal and wood workers known as the Compagnons du Tour de France. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries they visit respected architectural sites like the Pont du Gard for inspiration. After their visits they would carve their initials and symbols into the ancient monuments they visited. Sounds kind of rude by today’s standards, but believe it or not there is a whole field of historical study investigating nothing more than old graffiti at ancient sites. Apparently there’s a lot to be learned from these writings. Go figure.

The Pont du Gard

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