It is a traveller’s story repeated throughout the decades. The first-time visitor to Paris arrives in the city armed with a checklist of ‘must-see’ wonders – sites viewed in photographs so often that they are imprinted in the mind’s eye. And, unlike so many other places, in Paris every monument equals or surpasses expectation: the Eiffel Tower dazzles with its elegant simplicity; the proud dominance of the Arc de Triomphe inspires, and the sheer enormity of the Louvre leaves the onlooker speechless and confused as to where, exactly, to begin a tour.
However, turning left off of the final corner of Rue Saint Louis en-L’Ile one is confronted with a sight that defies literal description. The façade of Notre Dame de Paris is one of the most photographed, replicated, and described pieces of architecture in the world. It is also amongst the most spectacular examples of human dedication, reverence, and sheer effort. After the facts of its construction are absorbed (to name just one: the cathedral was under constant construction for over two centuries), its towering, intricate, and flawless details can consume hours of neck-straining inspection and scrutiny. So awe-inspiring is Notre Dame’s presence that most visitors fail to realise an equally impressive testament to mankind’s capabilities lies directly beneath their feet, a treasure trove of archaeological wisdom and remains that date back to 27 BC.
The Crypte Archéologique du Parvis was constructed under the square in front of Notre Dame to serve as a unified location for remains discovered during excavations conducted between 1965 and 1972. For archaeologists, it offers the opportunity to inspect myriad artefacts from the surrounding area, in one central museum. The meticulously displayed collection clearly demonstrates how Paris’s Ile de la Cité has been a site of constant construction and evolution for over 2,000 years. As one makes the anti-clockwise circuit of the cleverly designed and brilliantly lit display of artefacts, the archaeological layers are revealed in chronological order, thus providing hours of inspiration and education for both the experienced and budding archaeologist.
The Ile de la Cité originated as the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, on the left bank of the Seine in the reign of Augustus, from 27 BC to AD 14. From the middle of the 3rd century to the 5th century AD, Lutetia was threatened by the first Germanic attacks. But, owing to its ingenious, strategic location, the site proved to be an ideal military stronghold: surrounded by water on all sides and thus easily defended. The Crypte contains blocks of the original fortified walls whose daunting presence fended off all attackers.
As part of an informative linear narrative of how the area came to be what it is today, the Crypte houses remnants of the road that once led to the site on which Notre Dame now stands. Gazing at these exquisitely preserved remains, it is easy to imagine the life of the 11th-century labourers who began the cathedral’s construction.
On display are the pieces of what was first an access path that then evolved into a broad road, and the foundations of the buildings and shops which became the centrepiece of life on the island both during and after construction of the cathedral. Medieval wells, once used to draw water from the Seine, stand in their original locations; and from 1163 onwards, the Rue Neuve Notre-Dame was lined with ‘new’ houses that survived until 1750.
The ingenuity of civilisation is demonstrated through the design of bath houses, and a basement hot room or loconicum – providing central heating for the dwellings and shops above.
In fact, so forward-thinking was the citizenry that, in 1750, many ancient buildings were destroyed, not for the sake of building something grander, but to improve sanitation and ease the traffic flow. During this period, the architect Boffrand designed and built the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés, the foundling hospital on the north side of the cathedral.
Designed to impress
What makes this particular centre so enthralling is that its designers focused not only on the relics themselves, but have also painstakingly constructed intricate and informative models of the original sites, which they have inserted into the walls adjacent to the dug-out pits that house the remains. In doing so, they offer not only a step-by-step narrative of the archaeological history of this esteemed and significant location, but a geological and political history as well: for instance, a description of how the city took shape is demonstrated from the perspective of its waters, the rivers Seine and Bievre – a display which enhances the experience in an innovative and deeply thought-provoking manner. And due respect is paid to Clovis, the first King of France, who oversaw both the growth of Paris and the naming of the city as the nation’s capital in the 6th century.
Any visit to Paris is bound to be full of stimulating scents, scenes, performances, and personalities; but to allow the overwhelming structure of Notre Dame to leave you blinded to the existence of the Crypte Archéologique du Parvis, 100m in front of the cathedral, is to miss one of the crucial institutions in a city crammed with history. Indeed, it could be argued that a visit to the Crypte is mandatory before setting foot inside Notre Dame, for the education gained here will greatly enhance the experience of inspecting the cathedral above.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 51. Click here to subscribe