Little is known about the Parisii, the ancient Gallic tribe that dwelled on the banks of the Seine some 2,000 years ago. At the time, the French capital that now bears the Parisii’s name was called Lutetia.
Last week, archaeologists unearthed 50 burials that may shed light on funerary traditions in the ancient city that preceded Paris. Discovered just a few feet away from a bustling train station, the graves are believed to be part of the largest known Lutetian burial site, the Saint-Jacques necropolis.
Dominique Garcia, president of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), tells Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the finds open “a window into the world of Paris during antiquity.”
This dig isn’t the first time experts have excavated Saint-Jacques; in the 1800s, a hasty survey unearthed part of the ancient cemetery. As Sara González writes for El País, the 19th-century archaeologists “were chiefly interested in objects of value and ignored the skeletons they found, as well as other items that could provide information about the context of the time.” They quickly reburied the site, which was largely forgotten for the next two centuries.
Construction of roadways and the RER B railway line in the 1970s failed to rediscover the remains. According to AFP, plans for a new exit at the Port-Royal train station prompted INRAP researchers to explore the area, which was strongly suspected to be located near the lost necropolis.
Per a statement, the 50 burials hold the remains of both adults and children. The presence of nails indicates the dead were interred in wooden coffins that have since decayed.
Less than half of the graves contained funerary goods, including ceramic and glass vessels. At least one skeleton was buried with a coin in its mouth—a bribe for Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, who sails souls across the River Styx in Greek mythology. The coin dates to the second century C.E., suggesting the necropolis was in use around this time. According to the statement, the site fell out of use in the fourth century; at its peak, it occupied about four hectares.
On its website, the French Ministry of Culture notes that Lutetia housed “several necropoli,” only one of which—the largest, located south of the city—has been identified to date. Traces of shoes with studded soles found in the necropolis indicate the dead were buried in their clothing.
The little that is known about the Parisii comes from the writings of ancient Roman conquerors. Julius Caesar’s half-memoir, half-propaganda account, Commentaries on the Gallic War, mentions the Parisii by name. Rather than allow the Romans to take over their settlements, the Gauls burned their own homes as they retreated, Caesar recounted.
The Parisii also participated in an uprising against Caesar by the Gallic tribes. Under the leadership of Vercingetorix, a chieftain from what is now the southern countryside of France, the Parisii and other Gauls rose up against Roman forces in the mid-first century B.C.E., culminating in the Battle of Alesia. The battle marked one of Julius Caesar’s greatest military victories and secured his legacy in the region.
Because the Gallic rebellions were unsuccessful, much of the tribes’ history has been lost. But sites like the newly excavated necropolis hold clues to these ancient groups’ traditions, says INRAP anthropologist Camille Colonna.
“This [site] will allow us to understand the life of the Parisii through their funeral rites, as well as their health by studying their DNA,” Colonna tells AFP.