Monday, August 26, 2013

The Paris Catacombs

Bones and skulls in the Paris catacombs.
(Click images to view larger)

In the late 1700s, the cemeteries of Paris began to overflow.  Skeletons and human remains burst into basements, giving rise to modern clinical psychology as doctors were called upon to help French toddlers in basement nurseries.

OK—the toddler part is a joke, but...

Besides the bones, the overfull cemeteries contaminated the Paris water supply and emitted noxious fumes.  People fell ill.  Something had to be done. 

Five hundred or so years before, workers in what were then the rural outskirts of Paris abandoned open quarries and tunneled into the underlying limestone to mine stone for buildings, including the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.   After quarrying ceased, the tunnels were largely forgotten until entire neighborhoods began to fall into them in the late 1700s.  In response, King Louis XVI created an inspectorate (the IGC) that still exists today.  As IGC engineers shored up the passageways, they carved their initials and dates  into the stone to mark their completed work.  Eccentrics sculpted elaborate miniature buildings in underground limestone alcoves.   A few lost their lives when passageways collapsed.

In all, there are over 180 miles of tunnel beneath Paris.  National Geographic ran a story in February 2011 about the Paris underground where today fringes of Parisian society create avant garde art, store wine, and party like there’s no EU.  But in 1786, a portion of these tunnels was consecrated as an ossuary, and remains from overflowing Paris cemeteries were exhumed and dumped into them. 

The bones piled up until 1810, when a French politician and mining engineer named Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury was charged with overseeing the organization of the bone piles into artful patterns intermingled with headstones and other decorations from the cemeteries (he also supervised the construction of the Arch de Triomphe and other Paris landmarks).   Later, in the mid-1800s, more bones were added, probably including those of famous Parisians like Robespierre, whose skeleton came in two parts as a result of an unfortunate encounter with a guillotine very near the end of his life, in 1794. 

Today there are over 6 million skeletons stored in the catacombs, a portion of which can be viewed by visitors along an 800-meter-long section of dark, damp passageway bracketed between the bone-free entrance and exit tunnels.   Only about two hundred are allowed underground at one time, and they enter in a trickle as people exit the other end.  On a bright French morning, along with fellow sufferers who had waited in line for three hours, we finally entered the catacombs and shuffled through the corridors of bones.  Along the way, we passed dimly lit bone piles and peered through locked metal gates into unlit passage where more bones disappeared in darkness.  The only color was from green algae that grew on skulls wherever the faint light allowed. 

In all, one covers about 2 km of underground passageway before emerging into the Paris sunlight to have lunch or grab a gelato or a crepe.  It’s odd to pass by the physical remains of millions of souls, each one of whom once lived a life in this famous city, and then emerge to get something to eat.   But that’s what we do, blinking a little in the 21st century sunlight as we step out of the tunnels and have a look at what Paris has become.  

Engineers carved the date that tunnel reinforcements were built. 

Underground sculpture.

There are clear wells in the tunnels where workers could access water.

Monuments show where where the bones originated.

A cross of skulls embedded in leg bones.

More bone piles.

Detail of bone patterns and cemetery marker.

Skull patterns.


More skulls.

A barrel made of bones.

Back in the light.

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