Walking around Paris for the last month, I’ve been fascinated by the highly fossiliferous limestone that comprises so many of its iconic structures. I thought, Hmm… The City of Light is built with materials of death. I had no idea how much farther that thought would take me.
Perspective. Without abundant death we wouldn’t have asphalt, concrete, marble, travertine, chert, oil, coal or other graces of civilization. Still, there seemed to be an unusual abundance of limestone in use here, and I wondered where it came from. Natually, from my 21st century perspective, I guessed that all the stone had been quarried from some other place: hills outside of town somewhere. A relatively new rock (it’s only only a few dozen million years old – younger than dinosaurs) it’s called Lutetian limestone, and it’s quite the fashion lately. What I hadn’t figured was that nearly all of this building stone, for many centuries, was quarried out from underneath Paris itself.
I didn’t learn that fact until we visited the Catacombes a couple days ago.
The Catacombes are bone banks called ossuaries. They occupy abandoned quarries beneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million people. Many of the deceased are surely the same men (and women? probably) who carved out of the quarries, mostly in the first several centuries of the last millennium. It must have been quite a project, since it withdrew enough rock to assemble Notre Dame, thousands of other churches large and small, bridges, city walls and homes — and left beneath the streets of Paris more than 300 kilometers (100 miles) of tunnels, including rooms and vaults that together comprise a vast man-made cave system. Above them are the city’s ewers. Above those, just below the streets, is the city’s extensive subway system.
Fossils are bones of stone, I explained to my kid. And limestones are stones of bone. And here in the Catacombes, down hallways that go on and on and on and on, the bones of dead Parisians are stacked like stone walls, with an artistry that makes one wonder what was going on in the heads of the masons. Walls behind which lie piles of random bones are built mostly with femurs and skulls. The femurs are stacked and interlocked, with the knee knuckles outward, course after course forming a pattern like stitches in a cloth. These are interrupted by horizontal lines of skulls, and usually topped with a final row. Here and there some arm bones might be used, but femurs and skulls were clearly the preferable building material.
The masons were priests. The bones were gathered from the city’s cemeteries, which has become rotten with an abundance of corpses as the end of the 18th century approached. That’s when it was decided to move the bones down into deeper graves. The project went in waves, from the late 1700s to the middle 1800s. And priests, whose jobs included exceptional respect for the dead, did the work.
The pictures in my collection (such as the one above) aren’t the best I’ve taken. The light was very weak, flash was forbidden, and I had the wrong lens with me. After I get back to the states I’ll fill in some captions under the shots. Meanwhile, here are a pile of fascinating links:
- Mines of Paris in Wikipedia
- Catacombs of Paris in Wikpedia
- Google Images
- ParisInFrance on the Catacombs
- Parisilogue (a bit dated, but useful)
- Paris Catacombes, with links
- Urban exploration of the catacombs
- Secret history of the catacombes (best I’ve seen so far)
- Roman Paris (Lutetia)
Since one tours the tunnels in the company of others, many lighting the scenes with their cell phones, its less creepy than you might think. And, after awhile, endless aisles of bones tends to make the subject ordinary. Still, one almost can’t help coming to some sobering conclusions, beyond personal reconciliation with absolute fact of mortality. One is that, different as we all are in life, we are remarkably identical in death. Skulls tend to all look the same. So do other bones. One can look at them and say, These were babies once. Then laughing children. They grew up, learned about life, and lived long enough to produce more babies and get work done. And what they’ve left is no different than what everybody else leaves.
You know what characterizes animals? Eating living things. (We need their carbon.) We live on things that lived. And we build with them too. Death supplies us. In turn, we supply as well. And all our turns will come.
What makes us different is who and what we are, and what we do, when we’re alive. Life is for the living. And so is death.