Newspaper article International New York Times

Grisly Find Illuminates Medieval History in Paris ; Mundane Renovation beneath a Supermarket Uncovers a Mass Grave

Newspaper article International New York Times

Grisly Find Illuminates Medieval History in Paris ; Mundane Renovation beneath a Supermarket Uncovers a Mass Grave

Article excerpt

A mass grave unearthed in January, thought to be part of a hospital cemetery, bears witness to the lives of ordinary Parisians during the Middle Ages.

Past the racks of hair accessories on the ground floor of the Monoprix supermarket on the corner of the Rue Reaumur and the Boulevard de Sebastopol 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, recently home to row upon row of medieval skeletons, 316 in total.

Archaeologists believe the discovery, unearthed in January, is part of the cemetery of a medieval hospital called the Hopital de la Trinite 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 Universite 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 Hopital de la Trinite 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. …

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