Crypte Archéologique, stretching 118 meters under the Parvis du Notre Dame, was built by the city of Paris in order to house the archeological finds discovered during the excavation undertaken in 1965 by the Direction des Antiquites historiques de I’Ile de France and the Commission du Vieux Paris. It contains ruins of Roman quaysides, ramparts and hypocausts, medieval cellars, shops and pavements, the foundations of the Eglise Ste-Geneviève-des-Ardens, an 18th-century foundling hospital and a 19th-century sewer. Imbedded in the surface of the plaza itself are brass strips which locate the streets and buildings that were removed.
Paris lies in a valley between several hillocks, the largest among these are Montparnasse on the left bank and Montmartre on the right bank. In 300 BC the Celtic tribe known as the Parisii settled on the Isle de France, naturally protected by the two branches of the river Seine and the surrounding marshy land (in green). Much of the low-lying area on the right bank was a swampy zone known today as the Marais (built over in the 13th century, and today an upscale region of Paris), which was criss-crossed by small Seine tributary streams. The Parisii, like many other Celtic tribes, minted their own bronze, silver and gold coins, indicating trade with the Romans.
While today the Seine is about 9 meters below street level, in antiquity the ground level was much lower. During Roman times the city was called Lutèce, derived from an ancient Parisii word for marsh or swamp. In 52 AD Julius Caesar seized Lutèce after the Parisii broke their agreement with the Romans in order to support the Gallic war leader Vercingetorix. Their stronghold at Lutèce, left to be defended by the elderly warleader Camulogenus, was captured and burned by Labienus, one of Caesar’s generals. The Romans built their new town on the left bank about a kilometer south of the Seine. It had an amphitheater for about 9000 people, several public baths and a Roman forum.
Germanic invasions by the Franks and Alemanni in the late 3rd century AD destroyed much of the Left Bank portions of the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, forcing its contraction into a defensive stronghold on the Île de la Cité, utilizing the Seine for protection. The Île de la Cité was fortified in 308, becoming the active center of the city and the settlement on the left bank was partially abandoned. Walls were built along the island perimeter from large stones taken from damaged left bank structures, seen in the foreground of the picture above. In 357 AD, Julian II, then serving as consul and general commanding Gallic Legions, moved the Roman capital of Gaul from Trier to Paris, then defeated the Franks in a major battle at Strasbourg in 357 AD.
Julian allowed the Franks to settle the west bank of the Rhine, in exchange for their military services. The stone to the left, taken from the large foundation stones for the defensive wall has a Latin inscription and dates from this time.
The hypocaust is one of the most ancient heating systems. Like many great innovations, it originated with the Romans over 2000 years ago. A hypocaust is both a primary system and a secondary system, as it creates heat and distributes it as well. Its purpose was to evenly heat the room in the most efficient way possible. A hypocaust was composed of a raised floor (typically about two feet), supported by columns or pedestals of stone every few feet, with the space below left open. A furnace, composed of a continuously burning fire, created heat, which was then allowed to flow through the space below the raised floor, thus heating the floor and rest of the room. Once cooled, the air escaped through flues in the wall and out of vents in the roof. The furnace takes up a fair amount of space, so it was usually located in a separate room. The flues were built directly into the walls so they did not take up useful space. This crypt contains an intact hypocaust heating system 1700 years old.
In the picture above you can see the little brick towers, holding the floor up. In the top picture, the “D” denotes a section of flue that was built into the walls, allowing the cooled air to escape. This is a view of two adjoining rooms, and the small opening in the left of the bottom picture, and center of the top picture allowed heated air to go under both rooms. The small model to the right should help to visualize the space. The main disadvantage of the hypocaust system is carbon dioxide poisoning. The fumes created by the fire in the furnace easily crept out of the holding space below the false floor and into the main space. Although it is easily detectable and preventable today, the Romans probably had no idea of this concept.
These systems were expensive to build and not usually found in private homes. The picture above is an artist’s suggestion of how this building may have looked. Notice it is depicted as being right next to the water, while the current crypt is far from the edge of the Seine. This is because the outlines of the island have changed considerably over time.
The main use for hypocausts was found in the large public bathhouses, although this looks to have been a small bathhouse or even a private residence. Sauna rooms were created by adding a pool of water, heated by the same fire heating the air below. This created a hot, humid space to clean oneself and converse with friends. The temperature could have easily reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity could have reached 100% due to the pools.
In the picture above we see a room marked “S” which is believed to have been a heated pool. The small model to the left helps to visualize the space. The water would have been heated by the same fire that provided heated air beneath the floor. Again this would have been a small public pool, perhaps because space was limited on the island.
The excavation of this area in 1965 also yielded artifacts such as these beautiful glass vases and glasses, on display in the museum.
From 435 to 439, Attila the Hun conquered, pillaged and attacked his way through eastern and central Europe. Attila then moved on to the West Roman Empire and in 450, he demanded that Honoria, sister of the Western Emperor, Valentinian III, marry him and also receive half of the West Roman Empire as her dowry. Valentinian refused. In 451 AD Attila invaded Gaul. Just as they seemed about to sack Paris, the Huns altered their course to the south, only to be defeated at the Battle of Châlons, near Orléans, by Aëtius, the last effective general of the Roman Imperial armies. A young Christian girl named Geneviève, who had preached to the alarmed Parisians that God would intervene on the city’s behalf, later became the patron saint of Paris.
In 454, when at court in Ravenna, Aëtius was slain by Emperor Valentinian’s own hand. Edward Gibbon credits Sidonius Apollinaris with the famous observation, “I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left”. In 486, Clovis defeated Syagrius, the last Roman official in northern Gaul. Using the political vacuum in Gaul to his advantage, Clovis took over the remnants of the Roman army and administrative structure. With Rome out of the way and little left to cling to, survivors of the city reclaimed the name Paris, from Parisii, the name of the area’s original inhabitants.
One of the inhabitants of this medieval town was Geneviève, now a Saint. King Clovis, who converted to Christianity in 496, listened often with deference to the advice of St. Geneviève, and granted liberty to several captives at her request. In 508, Clovis became the first Christian Frankish king and made Paris his capital. He built Geneviève an abbey, Saint Etienne du Mont. All that remains of the ancient abbey today is the Tower of Clovis, which is now part of the Lycée Henri IV. On Ile de la Cité the Merovingian Kings constructed their palace and the city began once again to grow. Just as the Romans used to do, they filled in the remnants of the previous buildings and built above them. In 845, the Vikings rowed up the Seine and attacked Paris. This they did again twice more in the 860s, each time leaving only when the acquisition of loot or bribes was acceptable to them.
The largest raid on Paris, was the “massive” attack in 885. Paris was defended by 200 men led by Bishop Gozlin and Count Odo. Reportedly, 40,000 Northmen came up the Seine river and beseiged Paris for 11 months when finally King Charles the Fat paid them to leave. In 911 Charles the Simple defeated the Viking leader Rollo and had him sign the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte that converted him to Christianity. Charles then gave him land around Rouen, the heart of what would become Normandy (see my post on Normandy), in return for protection from any future Viking raiders.
Paris continued to grow, at the end of the 12th century Philip II Augustus had a strong turretted city wall built, the main thoroughfares paved, built a central market, Les Halles, continued the construction begun in 1163 of Notre-Dame de Paris, constructed the Louvre as a fortress (facing Normandy), stretched chains across the Seine and gave a charter to the University of Paris in 1200. Under his guidance, Paris became the first city of teachers the medieval world had known, the libraries and scholars of Notre Dame and Saint Etienne du Mont were the nucleus. The Latin Quarter near Saint Etienne was so named because the scholars all spoke Latin. At the end of the 14th century Charles V extended the city walls around the rapidly expanding right bank. The model seen above shows the city at the end of the 14th century.
Through the centuries the Île de la Cité has been the heart of Paris with the Parvis Notre Dame as its square. The Parvis in the 18th century was small compared to the size of Notre Dame, crowded by buildings, and could really only be appreciated by going down the ancient street leading away, the Neuve Notre Dame. In 1727 Boffran constructed the Hospice des Enfants of the general hospital. The model above is from this period.
The reason that archeological finds remain in this location is because this area was directly under the Neuve Notre Dame. No one built in this location after the Romans and it was cleared by the renovations of Haussmann in the 19th century. In the photo above, we see a pre 3rd century room with the foundation (L) of a later roman building.
In this photo collage from the garden of the former Hotel Dieu hospital we see stairs going to ground level in the upper right. A cellar is seen in the upper left, with an even deeper cellar behind and below it. A model of the site is seen at the bottom of the photo. All of this was filled in with dirt centuries earlier.
If you have read to this point, you deserve a summary and why I included some of the above material. It has been said by Gibbon that the western Roman empire ended with the rise of Odoacer to rule over Italy in 476. I say it ended with the death of Emperor Valentinian III in 455 by followers of Aëtius. In any case, the western Roman empire had been in decline for some time, few Romans served in the army, the seat of power moved away from Rome, split between Constantinople, Ravenna and the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman system of exchanging land in the form of foederati status (Huns, Franks, Visigoths and Burgandians) for military service meant that the western legions were composed of mostly germanic tribes. The Roman empire did not so much fall as it went through a process of decentralization, epitomized by the events in Paris with the Franks, in which Clovis simply took over the local Roman bureaucracy. Elsewhere, the same process was evolving, such as the foederati Visigoth victory at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, subsequent sack of Rome in 410, leading to control of Aquitane and then Spain. The rise of Burgundy was yet another example.
In Histoire des institutions politiques de l’ancienne France (1875–89), Fustel de Coulanges argued that the barbarians simply contributed to an on-going process of transforming Roman institutions. Henri Pirenne continued this idea with the “Pirenne Thesis”, published from 1921-1923. It holds that even after the barbarian invasions, the Roman way of doing things did not immediately change; barbarians came to Rome not to destroy it, but to take part in its benefits, and thus they tried to preserve the Roman way of life.
That’s all for now, lovely history to be seen and considered in the Archeology Crypts of Notre Dame.