Archaeologists discover an ancient necropolis near the Paris Metro

For centuries, Parisians have walked over thousands of years of history, from the catacombs to the remains of past civilizations.

Scientists have now unveiled the latest startling discovery made just ten feet below well-trodden pavement in the heart of the French capital: 50 previously undisturbed graves found within walking distance of a popular Metro stop.

Somehow the necropolis had remained buried despite multiple building projects over the years, such as the construction of Port-Royal station on the historic Left Bank in the 1970s.

It was finally discovered this year when plans for a new exit for the train station required an archaeological dig. The find offers a rare glimpse into what life was like in the Roman city of Lutetia, which existed nearly 2,000 years ago where Paris now stands.

The story of a city lost in time

Camille Colonna, an anthropologist at France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), told reporters there were already “strong suspicions” that the site was near the southern necropolis of Lutetia.

The “Saint Jacques” necropolis, the largest burial site in the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, was partially excavated in the 1800s. But only the artefacts considered “precious” were taken from the tombs, which means that many skeletons and offerings funeral homes have been abandoned.

The site has not been maintained and over the years it has been covered over again and its exact location has been lost to time. This new section of the necropolis, which archaeologists began excavating in March, has never been seen before.

“No one has seen it since antiquity,” said INRAP president Dominique Garcia.

Colonna said the team was able to date the burial site to the 2nd century AD, thanks to a coin found in one of the skeleton’s mouths.

Tommaso Sansone / AFP

A skeleton from an ancient necropolis discovered by archaeologists in the Port-Royal metro station in Paris. – Tommaso Sansone / AFP

Rituals, rites and offerings

The remains of the 50 men, women and children are believed to be Parisii, a Gallic people who lived in Lutetia when the fishing village was controlled by the Roman Empire. The modern name of the city derives from these first inhabitants.

Their skeletons were buried in wooden coffins, which archaeologists were only able to identify by their metal nails. More than half of the bodies were buried with offerings, including ceramic jugs and goblets.

Sometimes a coin was placed in the coffin, or even in the mouth of the dead, to ensure the soul’s safe passage to the underworld. The common practice was called Charon’s offering, after the ferryman of Hades who would have carried the souls of the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology.

French archaeologists have also found personal belongings such as jewellery, hairpins, belts or shoes inside the tombs. The bodies were buried fully clothed and sometimes with multiple pairs of shoes placed next to them, which scientists were able to identify by the tiny nails used to secure the soles.

Colonna said the shoes were placed “either at the feet of the dead or beside them, as an offering.”

“We have a grave with five pairs of shoes,” he added. “If they’ve been placed flat, we can still see, from the nails, the shape of the shoe and almost even guess its size.”

Archaeologists also found a complete skeleton of a pig and another small animal in a pit where the animals were thought to have been sacrificed to the gods.

Thomas Sanson/AFP

Archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research work on the site of an ancient necropolis below Paris. -Thomas Sanson/AFP

Start a full scan

Unlike the last excavation of the necropolis of Saint Jacques in the 1800s, this time the team has removed every object from the site and plans to analyze them all.

“This will allow us to understand the life of the Parisii through their funeral rites, as well as their health by studying their DNA,” Colonna said.

Some of the questions scientists hope to answer include how the necropolis evolved and spread over the years and what its organization looked like. They also hope to analyze the ceramic containers to find out what was inside, such as honey, oil or food.

Garcia said the find was exciting because the early history of Paris is “generally poorly understood.” The unearthed tombs thus open “a window into the world of Paris during antiquity”.

INRAP says the necropolis is believed to extend even further south of Paris. But those ancient secrets will remain buried, as new excavations can only take place if construction projects threaten to damage the sites.

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