On the occasion of the creation of a new exit for the “Port Royal” train station in Paris, a preventive archaeological excavation was prescribed by the State services (Drac Île-de-France). This research, carried out by France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap), uncovered a 200 m2 plot of a large necropolis that was located south of Lutèce in the 2nd century.
During Antiquity, the spaces devoted to the dead and the living were very distinct. The necropolises were located on the outskirts of the city and the graves on the edge of a road. During the High Empire, Lutèce, whose southern urbanization extended to the Val de Grace, had several necropolises. The most important, known as the “southern necropolis” – also called the Saint-Jacques necropolis or even the rue Pierre-Nicole necropolis (because of the large number of burials discovered in the southern part of this street) – developed to the south of the city, along the cardo maximus (current rue Saint-Jacques).
The excavation currently being carried out makes it possible to study a small part of it, which has so far eluded numerous road works and the construction of the train station in the 1970s. This islet, still preserved, thus bears witness to a westward extension of the supposed limits of the necropolis, its excavation bringing new data thanks to the different approaches of archaeology and modern anthropology.
This will allow us to understand the life of the Parisii through their funeral rites, as well as their health by studying their DNA.Camille Colonna, anthropologist at Inrap
Most of the previous knowledge of this necropolis date to the 19th century, when, during major works in Paris, some observations were of a small part of the burial and incineration graves that make it up. Archaeological finds at the time indicated regular use of the funerary space from the beginning of the 1st century to the 3rd century, to begin to be abandoned in the 4th century. These observations also led to the assumption that the necropolis extended from the site of the Port-Royal Abbey to the Saint-Michel Boulevard and, at the pinnacle of the Roman city, it occupied a considerable space of about four acres.
The excavation now revealed 50 burial tombs, dated to the 2nd century. As commonly observed in Antiquity, no organization or orientation seems predominant and the digging of the sepulchral pits, sometimes of very large dimensions, both in length and in depth, is frequently narrow and levelled.
All the remains are in burial grounds. No incineration has been detected although it is a period of antiquity where the two can coexist. They are all in a coffin, a perishable container whose traces of planks are sometimes still visible and the nails still present. The individuals buried here are adult males and females but also children, as might be expected in a large necropolis.
A little less than half of the burials are accompanied by deposits of various kinds, such as ceramic containers (cups, beakers, jugs, dishes) or glass (unguentarium, lachrymatory, glasses). On occasion, a coin is placed in the mouth of the deceased or in his coffin. This practice, common in antiquity, is probably the obol of the ferryman of the underworld, Charon. Finally, several traces of shoes remain due to the presence of numerous small nails which formed the sole: they are either in the wearing position at the feet of the individual or placed on their side. A few objects related to clothing (fibulae, jewellery, pins, belts) have also been unearthed.
Thanks to the study of the various modes of burial, the population present as well as the associated furniture, this excavation will provide more accurate information about the dating and the duration of use of this necropolis.