Thursday Reader: Ancient Skeletons in Paris and a Rare Roman Tombstone in England

paris

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV

Hundreds of Skeletons Found Under a Paris Supermarket

Workers digging underneath a Paris supermarket have made an unsettling discovery: as many as 200 skeletons.

The grocery store, Monoprix, was doing some renovations in January and workers removing an underground wall discovered the bones. The area was apparently part of a cemetery for the Hospital of the Trinity, according to France’s BFM-TV. The cemetery operated from the 12th century to around the 17th century.

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV.

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV.

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV

Researchers and archaeologists are conducting carbon dating and DNA testing to try to figure out when and why the people died, the affiliate said. It’s clear they all died around the same time, lead archaeologist Isabelle Abadie told BFM-TV, because of the way the bodies were neatly arranged.

“What’s surprising is the bodies were not thrown in (the graves) but were carefully placed there in an organized manner. The individuals, men, women, and children, were placed head-to-toe,” to fit as many as possible in the grave, Abadie explained.

The bodies were found at the site of an ancient cemetery attached to the Trinity Hospital, which was founded in the 13th century. Paris suffered several plague epidemics during the times that the hospital was in operation, as well as a smallpox outbreak in the 17th century, not to mention Europe’s Black Death in the 1300’s.

Though it’s not clear exactly how these ancient people died, the trove of bodies could reveal insights into how people in the Middle Ages buried their dead during epidemics or famine, the researchers involved said.

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV.

Photo courtesy of BFM-TV.

Archaeologists working the site have found eight common graves in an area that is 100 square meters, with seven of the graves containing between five and 20 skeletons each and another site with more than 150 skeletons, BFM-TV said. The groupings suggest that whole families were buried together.

Abadie told BFM-TV that when the cemetery was shut down centuries ago, most of the remains were moved to the Catacombs of Paris.

“But apparently the job was not done well,” she said.

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The Latin inscription memorializes the death of a 27-year-old woman. Credit: Cotswold Archaeology

Eighteen Thousand year Old Tombstone Found in England

A 1,800-year-old tombstone was discovered at a Roman cemetery in England this week. Because of its inscription, archaeologists know who was buried in the grave: a 27-year-old woman named Bodica.

“It’s incredibly rare,” Neil Holbrook, of Cotswold Archaeology, told BBC News.

For the last two months, Holbrook’s team has been excavating a Roman cemetery just outside the ancient city walls of Cirencester, a town in Gloucestershire, to make way for the construction of a new office park. They documented about 55 graves — some of which contained wooden coffins and copper bracelets — but only one was covered up with a toppled-over stone slab. 

The discovery comes on the heels of another Roman cemetery being found in the spring of 2013 in Leicester, England.

The excavators waited until February 25th to lift up the stone, discovering it was indeed a tombstone. The grave marker is among just nine other Roman tombstones found in Cirencester and about 300 found in the rest of Britain.

The grave dates to the second century, at a time when Cirencester was the second-largest city in Britain after London. The stone has very finely carved decorative details, Holbrook said, suggesting that Bodica had money or was married to someone with money. Inside the pediment, there’s a sculpture of the Roman god Oceanus, perhaps to mark the “watery journey” between life and death, Holbrook said.

The Latin text reads “D.M. BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII,” or, roughly, “To the spirits of the dead, Bodica, loyal wife, lived 27 years.”

But the inscription has some archaeologists scratching their heads.

“The lettering and the writing is very poorly done — perhaps by someone who was illiterate,” Holbrook said.

Some letters seem to be missing, and the spelling of “Bodica” — a Celtic name that means “victory” — as “Bodicacia” is somewhat puzzling. It might be a misspelling. Maybe Bodica selected this skillfully made tombstone before her death, but when it came time to actually inscribe it, the stone fell into the hands of someone who wasn’t entirely equipped to do so. Or perhaps part of the Latin word “acacia,” meaning “ax,” was intentionally tacked onto her name to deter vandals, Holbrook said.

“We’ve only had it out of the ground 24 hours, but already it’s created a massive amount of interest and debate,” Holbrook said.

The archaeologists, who are wrapping up their excavation this week, found a skeleton associated with the grave. Eventually, an analysis of the woman’s bones should reveal more details about the woman’s life.

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