ARLES, France — In a dark space in a new exhibition at Arles museum in southern France, underwater sounds play over looped video footage of scientists on underwater digs along the Rhone riverbed.
An intrepid team of archaeologists have been diving for 20 years, struggling with poor visibility, strong currents and flipper-nibbling bullhead catfish to bring up the 500 or so objects now being displayed.
In 2007, just when these Indiana Joneses of the water were ready to hang up their wet suits, they bumped into intriguing column fragments, friezes and chunks of mausoleums.
And then they brought up the most extraordinary buried treasure of all: a bust of Julius Caesar.
The find, dated 46 BC, is all the more remarkable for likely being made during the emperor's lifetime and provides the centrepiece for the exhibition organised by Luc Long, head of the French state department for archaeological, subaquatic and deepsea research.
The "unifying theme" in "Caesar, the Rhone for Memory", running to September 2010, is "to maintain the feeling of going on a journey with the archaeologist, following every stage of their work from the site of the digs right up to the restoration and exhibition of the artifacts", says its designer Pierre Berthier.
The collection shows ancient Arles was not only a port and place of passage, but "decorated" and "monumental" says Long, "an ostentatious facade aiming to display Rome's wealth and power".
The most stunning finds are together in the last room of the exhibition that Long calls "the saint of saints".
Alongside Caesar is the 1.8-metre (six-food) marble statue of the god Neptune dating from the beginning of the third century AD, and a bronze satyr with its hands tied behind its back.
"We made new and very beautiful discoveries in 2009," Long said, "which leaves one thinking that we have not come to the end of the reserves that this great natural museum -- the Rhone river -- still holds".
The divers also brought up remains from 15 shipwrecks, iron or lead ingots, rings, tools, shoe leather, small figurines and ceramics -- vivid reminders of ancient Arles as a port receiving boatloads of goods from Gaul, Europe, the Orient, Africa.
When the exhibition ends next September the artifacts will be incorporated into the permanent collection of the city's museum which, its director Claude Sintes hopes, will get "an extension".
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