While digging underneath the ground floor of a supermarket in Paris, excavators discovered the bones of hundreds of people preserved in a series of mass graves. The bodies were buried at a hospital cemetery that was demolished by the early 19th century, and they may have belonged to victims of epidemics.
So far, eight graves have been discovered within a 100-square-meter area: Seven of them have between five and 20 individuals, and the eighth has more than 150 bodies, according to a statement from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (or Inrap). Some bodies were buried five deep, and many of them had their arms crossed over their chests, suggesting they were wrapped in cloth.
Monoprix Reaumur Sebastopol occupies an old building constructed on the site of the cemetery of Trinity Hospital (or Hôpital de la Trinité), which was founded in the 12th century and destroyed at the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century. Most of the bodies buried in the hospital grounds were thought to have been disinterred and moved to the Paris Catacombs—ossuaries that hold the remains of six million people in underground caverns and tunnels, the Guardian reports.
Recently, the store decided to convert part of its cellar into extra storage space. “We had expected to find a few human remains as we knew it was a former hospital cemetery, but nothing like as many as we have found,” Solène Bonleu of Inrap tells the Guardian. “We’ve come across hospital cemeteries before, notably in Marseilles and Troyes, but it’s the first discovery of its kind in Paris.” Many aspects of funeral practices associated with medieval hospitals in France remain a mystery.
The bodies belonged to individuals of all ages and were methodically deposited in two rows (and possibly a third just beyond the limits of the excavation right now). “What is astonishing is that the bodies were not thrown in, but put there with care and in an organized way,” says dig leader Isabelle Abadie of Inrap. “The individuals—men, women and children—were placed head-to-toe, no doubt to save space.”
Abadie adds: “It suggests there were a lot of sudden deaths, but we still have to find the cause of this sudden fatal event and whether it was an epidemic, fever, famine.” The skeletons don’t appear to have identifiable injuries, though communal graves lacking clear boundaries do indicate that they fell victim to a mortality crisis. Paris was struck by bubonic plague and smallpox epidemics over several centuries, as well as famines and repeated flooding. DNA work is underway to determine their causes of death; meanwhile, radiocarbon dating, ancient texts and maps will help researchers understand the context and chronology of the burials.
There could be another layer of bodies that hasn’t been uncovered yet, and archaeologists have two more weeks to complete their dig. These remains will eventually be reburied at a site to be determined.
Images: Denis Gliksman, Inrap