Scientists Investigate a Medieval Mass Grave Under a French Supermarket

Renovation work uncovered hundreds of individuals, perhaps all killed by disease at the same time

mass grave
An archeologist from Inrap excavates a mass grave below a supermarket in Paris Denis Gliksman/Inrap

When the Monoprix Réaumur-Sébastopol supermarket in Paris, France, decided to renovated their basement to get more storage space, they probably didn’t expect to uncover hundreds of human bones. But when they dug into the basement floor, that's exactly what they discovered. The human remains are, apparently, the legacy of a cemetery from a medieval hospital, reports Aurelien Breeden for The New York Times. Since the find in January, France’s National Institute for Preventive Archeological Research, or Inrap, has been excavating the site.

The institute knows that the hospital itself was the Hôpital de la Trinité, built in the early 13th century, reports Breeden. During its lifetime, the hospital served as a shelter for religious pilgrims and the poor, an infectious disease center and a children’s vocational school.

So far, the team has found eight graves. Seven of them hold the remains of five to eight people, and the eighth grave is the resting place for 175 people. Men, women and children are all buried there. The large grave shows evidence that burials were careful and organized, Inrap reports in a press release. "[A]t least two rows of individuals were laid out with the feet of one being aligned with the head of another," they write.

Archaeologists in France are pretty exicted about the find. “Each dig is an event, but a cemetery is even better, because you have a real population at hand,” Boris Bove, a historian and professor at the Université Paris 8 told The Times. “Most of the time, you only stumble upon buildings.”

Isabelle Abadie, an anthropologist, archeologist and leader of the institute’s excavation team, explains that the smaller graves don’t show the same level of organization as the largest one. Since the archeologists think all of the people in these graves died at the same time, the evidence of haste in the smaller graves might indicate that the hospital was struggling to deal with an epidemic. “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 says.

DNA evidence and carbon dating may help solve the mystery by offering a more precise date of the deaths.

The discovery is apparently the first intact medieval cemetery to be excavated within Paris. Many other cemeteries were exhumed and the human remains moved to the Paris catacombs during the 18th century. But in a city with as rich a history as Paris has, this cemetery is certainly not the only archeological treasure hidden below newer construction.

Such discoveries are valuable for the glimpse they offer of everyday lives. “The history of this hospital really bears witness to the whole history of France,” Inrap’s deputy regional director Pierre Vallat told The Times. “This is a total history, not just the history of the rich and famous."

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