They had expected to find some bodies. The site, after all, had once been a medieval hospital and cemetery. But they never expected to find anything like this.
Underneath a supermarket in the middle of Paris, littered among scraps of medieval pottery, archaeologists have discovered what local media call the “city’s archaeological find of the year”: 200 skeletons, many of which are buried head to toe, six corpses deep. “We expected it to have a few bones to the extent that it had been a cemetery, but not to find mass graves,” the manager of the supermarket told Agence France-Presse. The supermarket allowed in researchers to examine during construction.
The discovery offers a grisly peek into one of the darkest times in the French capital’s history, an era fraught with disease and famine. The plague and smallpox dispatched tens of thousands of Parisians throughout the Dark Ages. So it’s not yet clear what killed those who lay beneath the supermarket, though those illnesses are a probable cause of death.
“The fact that so many people were buried together, that the grave is this large, tends to show us that there was a major mortality crisis,” lead archaeologist Isabelle Abadie told the news service. “The crisis may have resulted from an epidemic, famine or extreme fever.”
The possibilities of illness are legion. The tenure of the hospital where the men, women and children died spanned the full sweep of that era, from the 12th century through the 17th century. Until the discovery, most believed that the corpses laid out by the hospital were moved to the Paris Catacombs in the 18th century, according to the Telegraph. But those bodies, for whatever reason, never made it.
The French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research plans to perform tests to determine what exactly killed the people and see whether it was plague or famine. Whatever it was, it killed with speed. And researchers were surprised, they said, to observe the meticulousness with which the bodies were placed in the graves.
“The bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care,” Abadie told the Telegraph. “The individuals — men, women and children — were placed head to toe no doubt to save space.”
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