An ancient necropolis, some gently cleared skeletons and a few ceramics as offerings is a familiar setting for any journalist covering archaeology. But never before had we witnessed such a scene in the heart of Paris, on a street where we have so often passed without suspecting that 3 meters under our feet, dozens of human remains had been lying for nearly two millennia. As they say, there is a first time for everything, and on Tuesday, April 18, the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) held a press conference to present the rediscovery of the largest necropolis of Lutetia, on the Avenue de l’ Observatory at the border between the 5th and 14th boroughs.
It is a rediscovery because, as anthropologist Camille Colonna (who is in charge of the operation for INRAP) explained, “this large necropolis in the south of Lutetia, which covered 4 hectares, has been known since Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the 19th century. Many burials were discovered at that time, but this is the first time anything has been found since.” The piece of an ancient cemetery that INRAP has been excavating since March 6 measures just 200 square meters, but no less than 50 graves have been unearthed “It is quite miraculous that this small island has been preserved,” said Colonna.
This archaeological project was requested in anticipation of the digging of a new exit for passengers at the Port-Royal station on the RER B line. This public transport line is currently being modernized by the RATP and is undergoing a series of works, notably because it will soon be equipped with new trains. It was therefore necessary to ensure that no buried historical remains would be destroyed in the process. The archaeologists were not certain that the plot in question was part of the Gallo-Roman cemetery. But a preliminary survey dispelled any doubt: Three skeletons were discovered and one of them had a coin in its mouth (probably the famous obolus for Charon, the mythological figure who made the dead cross the river Styx to reach the underworld), a coin that confirmed that they had indeed found a 2n/a-century burial.
Men, women and children
At that time, the Roman Empire was at its peak – with famous emperors like Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius – and so was Lutetia, which extended on the left bank of the Seine up to what is today the Val-de-Grâce. The present-day Rue Saint-Jacques constituted the main north-south axis of the city, or what the Romans called the cardo maximus. At the time, Lutetia had several necropolises, but the one bordering the south of the city – given that the space of the dead did not overlap with that of the living – was the largest. Later on, when the empire was in decline, the city would retreat to the Ile de la Cité.
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