When Napoleon III asked the Commission de Topographie des Gaules (CTG) to carry out archaeological excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine in May 1861, the academic debate over the location of Alesia had already been raging for six years.
A favourable context
The quarrel over Alesia took place in a very particular context. The Gauls had been fashionable since the 1830s. With the publishing successes of the Thierry brothers (L’Histoire des Gaulois depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à l’entière soumission de la Gaule à la domination romaine, 1828) and of Henri Martin (Histoire de France, 1833), Vercingetorix became a historic figure and the first hero of national history. Knowing the location of his final combat would shed light on the founding myths of the history of France.
Considerable archaeological excavations, but badly published
Napoleon’s archaeological excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine mobilised significant funds. Between May 1861 and September 1862, the CTG received funding from the Ministry of Education as well as directly from the emperor. Up to a hundred workers were employed on the site. Eugène Stoffel, one of Napoleon III’s ordnance officers, then took over the operations in September 1862 and led them until 1865. During this second phase, funds came only from the imperial purse. However, in spite of the significant numbers of workers involved and the substantial financial investment, the results of the excavations were not widely published.
During these four years of research, the scholars faced numerous problems: difficulties in moving away from Caesar’s text, technical difficulties in stripping large outdoor surfaces, and working on land which was home to structures from a variety of very different periods.
However, the archaeological excavations carried out by French and German archaeologists at the site in the 1990s made clear the quality of the CTG’s initial work. For example, Roman siege lines, surveyed and drawn in the 19th century, were confirmed by aerial photography.
The first museum at Alise-Sainte-Reine
Not satisfied with financing and personally following the excavations, Napoleon III implemented a new heritage policy.
Some of the artefacts found during the excavation were placed in a museum built between 1861 and 1862, financed by the emperor. Its organisation was entrusted to General Casimir Creuly, a CTG member. Napoleon III also commissioned the sculptor Aimé Millet to make a sculpture of Vercingetorix, erected at Mont-Auxois in 1865. Finally, he ordered the installation of markers on the site which indicated the location and direction of identified Roman siege lines.