Archeological Museum in Saint-Germain-en-Laye

The old Château in Saint-Germain-en-Laye was used for decades as a hospital, a cavalry school, a caserne and a prison, and by the 1860s it was in terrible condition. The local council considered it a threat to public health and safety, and wanted to tear it down, but the Emperor Napoléon III saved the building by turning it into an archaeological museum and having it salvaged and renovated by the architect Eugène Millet (1819-1879).

It was decided to remove the more recent additions, some of which were unfinished anyway, and restore the building to the way it had been during the reign of François I, who ruled from 1515 until his death in 1547.

Bas-reliefs above the entrance

These bas-reliefs above the entrance show two winged adult female figures who are supposed to represent some sort of ancient Gallic goddesses.

Museum displays

Most of the displays in the museum are chronologically organized from the early Paleolithic period through the Neolithic, the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron, up to the time of the Gauls, the Roman Gauls and the early Middle Ages.

La Salle Piette

While buying my ticket to the Archeological Museum I had a chat with the man at the cash desk, and he asked if I would like to go on a guided tour of the Salle Piette, a special room on one of the upper floors that can only be visited with a guide.

As a guided-tour-junkie I immediately agreed and paid the two or three Euros extra, and this turned out to be a very good decision.

Eduard Piette (1827-1906) was a French archeologist who spent 26 years doing research, at his own expense, in several caves in southern France, where he amassed a remarkable collection of Paleolithic tools and even works of art.

In 1904 he donated his entire collection to the Archeological Museum, but he specified that his collection had to be displayed in accordance with his classification, and that the form of presentation must not be changed.

Museum design has come a long way since 1904, but even after more than a century the museum officials still respect Piette’s wishes. In his day, museums typically tried to display the largest possible number of objects in oak display cases, on a background of red felt, which a few tiny labels but little or no explanation of where the items were found or what their significance might be.

In 2008 the Salle Piette was thoroughly renovated, and a modern air-conditioning system was installed to protect the objects on display, but otherwise the presentation was preserved just as Piette had left it. It is now accessible only on guided tours of up to nineteen people, which is sensible both because the arrangement of the oak display cases does not leave room for any more people than that, and because you really need the explanations of a knowledgeable guide to understand what you are looking at.

So now this room is a museum in two ways. First, it shows us authentic objects from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras of prehistory, and second it shows us how these objects were originally presented over a century ago.

La Salle Piette

I didn’t take any photos in the Salle Piette itself, but later on another floor of the museum I found several very large photos of it, so these are my photos of their photos.

Dame à la Capuche (also known as the Venus of Brassempouy)

The most famous item on display in the Saale Piette, in fact the most famous item in the entire museum, is the Dame à la Capuche (Lady with the Hood), carved from the ivory of a mammoth, which Eduard Piette found in a cave in a place called Brassempouy.

This is one of the earliest known depictions of a human by a human, since it was made in the Gravettian period of the Upper Paleolithic, about 25,000 years ago. The photo is from the cover of the free pamphlet that I was given when I entered the museum.

The Salle Piette reminded me of another museum room that has been purposely preserved in its original form, namely the Geology Hall of the University Museum in Groningen (Netherlands), which has intentionally been preserved as a traditional museum with old-fashioned wooden display cases to emphasize the four-hundred-year history of the university.

Location and aerial view of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2019.

See more posts on Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

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