Excavations at the Basilica of Saint-Denis revealed many burials

Excavations at the Basilica of Saint-Denis revealed many burials

On April 5, 2023, the city of Saint-Denis announced the first results of the archaeological research carried out in the western block of the cathedral. These excavations are one of the necessary steps in the project to reconstruct the building’s north tower, explains Yvan Lafarge, of the Archaeological Heritage Office of Seine-Saint-Denis, who leads the site. The project is important for all Dionysians, according to Mayor Mathieu Hanouten, because “Saint-Denis is the city of dead kings and living people, and the future of the Republic is written there with a positive multiculturalism that needs symbols. »

A reconstruction of the north tower would obviously provide one, as it was designed in the 13th centuryH Century to surpass Notre Dame culminating in nearly 90 meters! It was caused by a lightning strike in 1836, and in 1847 a hurricane so destabilized it that Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) dismantled it in the same year. “Cautious, but also in dispute with his predecessor François Depres (1777-1850), who restored it, Violet-le-Duc cleared the foundations of the western block in several places. Thus he discovered its nature: stone walls bound by mortar. He did not, however, have enough out of confidence in their ability to carry the North Tower, and preferred to remove the nearly 2,000 tons of load that this structure represents, ”explains Yvan Lafarge, after it was not completely cleared. The tower has been absent from the church for one hundred and seventy years, but not in people’s minds. Since the 1970s, Marceline Berthelot (1927-1997), mayor of Saint-Denis, proposed to the Ministry of Culture to rebuild. It is repeated constantly, and the idea did not work, until the context of the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024, which will be largely held in Saint-Denis, and the nomination of the city as the European Capital of Culture. In 2021, this project is launched for the church, with a total financial size estimated at 28 million euros, based on a contribution from the city of 2 million euros and 20 million euros. Euros from the Ile-de-France departments. The project is scheduled for completion in 2028, but its progress may bring additional tourist interest to the church, which, despite its importance, is still little known: before the launch of the operation, it received less than 120,000 visitors each year, i.e. a hundred. times less than Notre Dame before its fire…

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On the medieval side the project is rather alarming, as a group was formed to oppose it, V.I platform posted by the point. The researchers noted that only 3% of the blocks to be dismantled from the available tower would be medieval, so, according to them, it is the structure that was restored in the nineteenth century.H A century by the architect François Debret who is about to rebuild it … “In fact, the project carried out in Saint-Denis is in fact the reconstruction of what was dismantled in 1847, that is, the arrow such as the documentation of Debret and Viollet-le-Duc It is allowed to restore it, specifies Yvan Lafarge. It is true that very few fragments remain, but archeology has provided additional pieces, as the two architects sold, threw or reused the stones, which made it possible to complete the dismantling surveys. »

The great sensitivity of medieval scholars can be understood if we realize to what extent the basilica is for them a major monument: we in fact consider these to be the alterations made to the twelfth centuryH A century in the Carolingian Church of Saint-Denis by Abbot Suger (1081-1151) who inaugurated Gothic art! However, the work currently being carried out “renewes our knowledge of the building”, as Yvan Lafarge asserts. Indeed, the precautionary excavations preceding the launch of the rebuilding of the tower are of great interest to the archeology of medieval buildings. At this point, the most important finding of the team from the Saint-Denis Archaeological Unit, Department of Seine-Saint-Denis and Enrabe, headed by Yvan Lafarge, is not only that all the walls and columns of the western massif of the basilica are supported on massive foundations made of stones bound with mortar – they have Viollet-le-Duc had already been able to verify this, but above all – a novelty – that walls of this type strongly supported all the structures (walls and columns) of the western block, which a nineteenth-century engineer could not take into account.H a century. “It’s not the slightest sign of movement of the massif structure since its construction,” Yvan Lafargue exults – even if the foundations were still reinforced before the tower was cemented.

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Saint-Denis Basilica with its spire (on the left) And without an arrow, that is, in the current situation (on the right).


The archaeologists also documented the stages of successive renovations of the western block of the church: thus they found the bases of the twelfth-century building.H century, which allowed them to discover the dikes dating from the construction, to determine what depth the 13th century soils wereH a century. Some of its constituent panels recovered during the earth raising of 1870, and which required backfilling, were largely done in ‘holy ground’, for they came from the large cemetery surrounding the church…

In fact, the cathedral itself is above all a great necropolis that tells the story of France. From its origins, in viH And the seventhH For centuries, this church, elevated to the rank of cathedral only in 1966, has been a royal necropolis, so that today it contains the tombs of 43 kings, 32 queens and other great servants of the monarchy, that of Dagobert I.any (viiH century) until Louis XIII (XVIIH century), passing through the tomb of Queen Arégonde (VIH century), that of the first Carolingian Pepin the Short (viiiH century) and the tomb of Henry IV (end of XVIH – early seventeenth centuryH Qarn), desecrated by revolutionaries.

It was built according to tradition on the site of the tomb of the first bishop of Paris, Saint Denis (martyred on the 3rdH century according to tradition), the Basilica of Saint-Denis immediately seemed to the Merovingians a prestigious place to be buried. This explains the numerous Frankish tombs dating from V.H century, with their stucco coffins with typical Christian motifs often discovered in Saint-Denis, once the work was carried out not far from the church. In addition to its increasing funerary importance over time, the church was expanded several times, which, each time, encroached on the grounds of the Gallo-Roman, Frankish, and then medieval necropolis that surrounded the church. This explains the dams laden with human bones with which the earth was lifted in 1811. And then, explains Yvan Lafarge, in the course of VI.H century, or later, a funerary gallery was placed on the front of the church, probably to accommodate the tombs of the monks, which in the eighthH Century, has come to lean on a building whose function remains obscure; This building was settled between XH and the beginning of the twelfthHand burials resumed, before Abbot Suger’s alterations produced the first European Gothic church.

Burial of St. Denis in the Middle Ages of the X-XII centuries d

Excavations of the medieval tombs of the XHtwelvethH centuries in the first period.

The calling of the church as a cemetery explains why when it came time to remove the walls of the western block and empty what was inside, archaeologists expected to come across burials. “But we did not expect to find 210 tombs out of the 450 square meters excavated, and Yvan Lafarge is still surprised. Among them are 110 Merovingian and 100 Carolingian. By building vaults of stone slabs for the great Carolingian dignitaries or monks. The Merovingian tombs contain only a little funerary furniture, for the deceased wore girdles and daggers in their scabbards and jewels. Thus this agate brooch is probably from Ceylon – a jewel in the ‘reclusive style’ The typical Merovingian – these undoubtedly rich robes of gold threads or these bladed weapons with wooden handles in their scabbards were found in poor condition.

Merovingian brooch.  Saint Denis

Cloisonné gold and onyx brooch found during excavations.

© F. Savatier / PLS

Only graves filled with sediment well preserved the skeletons of the deceased, which in others were very deteriorated. Carolingian, with a height of 1.85 meters, enters the seventhH and eighthH The horn was carefully placed on its back in a plaster (Merovingian) sarcophagus reused and extended by fitting a stone basin equipped with a head-wedge fixation which is particularly impressive. It is suggested that members of the elite from the Middle Ages (XIHtwelvethH and thirteenthH) reached sizes which were conducive to their dominance… Whatever the case may be, the burials in the western massif represent a whole medieval people, in short a mixture of individuals embodying the first phase of the “positive multiculturalism” dyonisienne.

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