(Paris) Buried in the heart of Paris, these dead had not been seen since Antiquity: a necropolis dating from the Gallo-Roman era, with numerous burials and offerings, was unearthed during works, a discovery that will help to better understand the life of the “Parisii”.

About fifty skeletons had been buried there since the 2nd century, on the left bank of the French capital, a few meters from the entrance to the Port-Royal station of the RER B, a rail transport line.

The pit had escaped multiple road works, including the construction of the RER B in the 1970s. Until the creation of a new exit for users and the prescription of a preventive archaeological excavation.

“There was a strong suspicion because we are very close to the southern necropolis of Lutèce”, the name of Paris in Gallo-Roman times, explained Camille Colonna, head of archaeological research and anthropologist at the National Institute of preventive archaeological research (Inrap), during a press visit to the site.

This so-called Saint-Jacques necropolis, the largest of the Gallo-Roman city, was known because it had been partially excavated in the 19th century. But too quickly, the methods of the time were only interested in precious objects, abandoning the skeletons and all the other data allowing us to understand the context.

Everything has since been covered up, and that information is lost. An islet of the necropolis that has never been excavated has fortunately been preserved. “No one had seen it since antiquity,” enthuses Dominique Garcia, president of Inrap.

“We were very happy: during the survey we found a first skeleton with a coin in its mouth, which allowed us to date the burial to the 2nd century AD,” says Camille Colonna.

Excavations start in March. About fifty graves are unearthed, all for burial – and not for incineration as was also practiced.

The deceased were placed in wooden coffins, themselves poorly preserved but which archaeologists were able to restore thanks to the nails still present. There lie men, women and children, lying on their backs. It is most likely Parisii, the Gallic people settled in Lutèce, under Roman domination, according to Dominique Garcia.

Slightly more than half of the burials are accompanied by deposits: ceramic containers (jugs, goblets, vases…) or glass. More rarely, a coin was placed in the coffin, or in the mouth of the deceased, “a common practice in antiquity which probably constitutes the obol of the ferryman of the underworld, Charon”, specifies Inrap.

“Recurrently, we find shoes subsisting by the presence of small nails forming the sole. They are either at the feet of the deceased, or placed next to him, like an offering”, describes Camille Colonna.

Clothing-related objects (jewellery, hairpins, belts) were also found. And a single pit containing the skeleton of a whole pig, those of another small animal, with two ceramic containers: probably an “offering pit”.

Between now and the next closure of the excavation site, all these clues will be taken – without exception this time – and sent to the laboratory.

“This will allow us to understand the life of the Parisii through their funeral rites, as well as the health status of people through the study of their DNA,” according to the anthropologist.

These excavations open “a real window on the funerary world of Paris in Antiquity”, while the ancient history of the capital “is generally poorly known”, underlines Dominique Garcia. “What we find in the tombs, we also find it in the habitat, and this will teach us more about the places of supply of the Parisians of the time”, he rejoices.