Straight out of one of the climatic scenes in the movie Poltergeist, in 2015, underneath the basement of a Paris supermarket, over two hundred skeletal remains which were believed to have been transferred during the 18th century to the Paris Catacombs were in their original resting place.
The initial assessment of the archaeologists is that these were plague victims that died during several times the Black Death came to Paris, however it was during the French Revolution that the bodies should have been moved, and it appears that those who were alive thought it was expedient to just leave them where they were.
Past the racks of hair accessories on the ground floor of the Monoprix supermarket on the corner of the Rue Réaumur and the Boulevard de Sébastopol in the Second Arrondissement, there is a door marked staff only.
Slip through that passageway and turn left down a spiraling metal staircase into the basement. Past pallets of juice and soda bottles, down another flight of stairs, you will find a grim reminder of Paris’s history: a mass grave, with row upon row of medieval skeletons, 316 in total.
Archaeologists believe the discovery, unearthed in January 2015, is part of the cemetery of a medieval hospital called the Hôpital de la Trinité that used to stand nearby. The long-buried mass grave is a reminder that Paris, for all its surface grandeur, is still replete with undiscovered archaeological treasures, some grand, others much more grisly.
For archaeologists, though, grisly can be good.
“Each dig is an event, but a cemetery is even better, because you have a real population at hand,” said Boris Bove, a historian and professor at the Université Paris 8 who recently co-wrote a book on the French capital in the Middle Ages. “Most of the time, you only stumble upon buildings.”
The skeletons were excavated by a team from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, or Inrap, led by Isabelle Abadie, an anthropologist and archaeologist.
“There are babies, there are young children, there are teenagers, there are adults, men, women, elderly people,” Ms. Abadie said on a recent afternoon at an Inrap warehouse in La Courneuve, a suburb on the northern outskirts of Paris, where the skeletal remains are now housed.
“This was a mortality crisis, that much is clear,” she added, gesturing toward stacks of crates that contained hundreds of numbered plastic bags, each of them full of bones tinted brown by the passing of centuries. Nearby, some of the remains had been carefully washed with water and toothbrushes and left to dry on metal trays.
Ms. Abadie and her team spent two and a half months excavating the remains from eight different graves covering more than 1,000 square feet, sometimes up to five people deep. In the main pit, 175 bodies were neatly aligned head to toe. Those found in the other, smaller graves were jumbled together — a sign, perhaps, of the rush to bury the dead during a worsening epidemic.
DNA testing and carbon dating could take months, so it is too early for Ms. Abadie to know for sure when or how the bodies came to be buried where they were. “It could be the plague, it could be a famine, it can be many things at this stage — but there are no traces of trauma, so these aren’t deaths linked to an act of violence or war,” she said.
Mr. Bove, the historian, said Paris was struck by the plague, like much of Europe, during the great epidemic of the late 1340s. “We can’t give an absolute number, but it wouldn’t have been unlikely that the city lost a third of its population,” he said.
Pierre Vallat, deputy regional director for Inrap, said the Hôpital de la Trinité was built outside city limits in the early 13th century and had at different times served as a shelter for the poor and for pilgrims, a place of religious teaching that put on biblical plays, an infectious disease center and even a vocational school for children.
Mr. Vallat and Ms. Abadie said the discovery was the first medieval hospital setting to be excavated in Paris. Being able to study the remains of those who lived in the capital, not in distant provinces, would yield precious information on decisions made by those in power and how they affected the population.
“The history of this hospital really bears witness to the whole history of France,” Mr. Vallat said. “This is a total history, not just the history of the rich and famous. This isn’t Versailles.”
The contents of many medieval cemeteries were transferred into the Paris catacombs in the late 18th century, though some of the remains at this burial site might have been overlooked when the hospital closed during the French Revolution and, in 1812, when it was finally dismantled and the site was covered up by new construction.
The French businessman Félix Potin opened one of Paris’s first modern retail stores at Rue Réaumur and Boulevard de Sébastopol in 1860. After the company was sold off in the 1990s, that location became the Monoprix, which is still adorned with decorated balconies and topped by a large gray dome today.
Because Paris has been continuously occupied since the Middle Ages, few places can easily be excavated. Archaeological digs are rare and initiated only when construction workers accidentally stumble upon ruins or remains, or when Inrap comes on sites before work begins to preempt potential damage.
“From an archaeological standpoint, Paris is almost like unexploited terrain,” Mr. Bove said.
In 2013, during construction of a new reception hall at Police Headquarters on the Île de la Cité, an Inrap team excavated several layers of history, including the foundations of a 17th-century Barnabite church. In 2006, construction of a research facility at the Pierre and Marie Curie University on the Left Bank led to the discovery of remnants of a road and of several houses from the Gallo-Roman era, which ended in the fifth century.
When management of the Monoprix supermarket decided to renovate the store’s basement, workers came across long-forgotten cellars, and, underneath them, the skeletons.
Sometimes, digging things up is the only way to reveal what archives cannot. In the 1980s, when construction of a glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre uncovered many older portions of the royal palace, it was the first time archaeologists were able to see the city’s 14th-century outer wall, built under the reign of Charles V.
The real discoveries are still buried, and the French capital’s former inhabitants have left plenty to find, especially in its heart, where inhabitants piled historical layers on top of each other.
“Paris was originally built around the Seine, on ground that was liable to flooding,” said Didier Busson, an archaeologist who works for the city. “And when you have to regularly rebuild, you compress the existing soil, which slowly heightens the ground level.”
In some spots on the Ile de la Cité, Mr. Busson said, “all of Paris’s history is in a six-meter slice of ground,” sometimes just below the local supermarket.
After this discovery how many customers of the Monoprix store made the connection between cold shivers, feelings of being watched or even feeling sick with what lay beneath their feet as they innocently walked back and forth making purchases?
Article Originally Appeared in the NYTimes
Do you have a story to tell?
We want you to feel at home when you post a comment on Stranger Than Fiction Stories. That’s why we reserve the right to delete comments and ban users as needed to keep the comment threads here civil and substantive. So read the guidelines below to make sure you are coloring inside the lines.