Ancient necropolis found in Bordeaux city center

Archaeologists have discovered an exceptionally large and diverse ancient necropolis in the center of Bordeaux. The site, known as Castéja, hosted the first school for deaf girls in France (the main building built in 1862 is a historic monument). More recently it was the city’s central police station. The police station was closed in 2003 and in 2014 the property was sold to developers for an ambitious mixed incoming housing project. An archaeological survey was commissioned in advance of new construction.

So far around 40 graves containing the skeletal remains of about 300 people have been unearthed. Archaeologist and excavation director Xavier Perrot thinks the number of burials will increase as the excavation proceeds, perhaps even doubling. The burials begin in late antiquity (the 4th century) and continue through the early Middle Ages. There are a variety of tombs: ancient tile graves, amphora burials for babies, inhumations with traces of wooden coffins, brick-lined burial pits. Archaeologists also found two Merovingian-era sarcophagi and some very rare medieval coins.

The contents of the graves are unusually diverse for the period. Some are individual burials, while others contain multiple bodies piled on top of each other in a haphazard fashion. They appear to have been tossed in the grave hastily, which suggests they have been victims of mass violence, or more likely, of an epidemic. The Plague of Justinian, a pandemic that swept through the Byzantine Empire before spreading to the Mediterranean port cities and the rest of Europe in the mid-6th century, is a possible culprit. The remains will be subjected to a battery of laboratory tests to determine the dates of those burials and identify the epidemic, should there be one to identify.

Very few burial grounds this densely packed with remains are extant from antiquity. There are maybe three or four comparable sites in France and one in Bavaria, and none of those are as large as the Bordeaux find.

“This is an important operation. We see the evolution of the urban fabric and changes in burial arrangements with inhumations in the ground, in coffins, sarcophagi, a funerary space that evolves with a pit, multiple burials”, said Nathalie Fourment, regional curator of archeology at the regional Direction of Cultural Affairs (DRAC).

Excavations began early last month and were originally scheduled to end on January 20th, but because of the importance of the find, DRAC is negotiating an extension with property owner Gironde Habitat.

8 thoughts on “Ancient necropolis found in Bordeaux city center

  1. It is said that the teaching of history in French schools starts with the phrase “Our ancestors the Gauls ….”. Here’s a chance to see who else mattered over the years. Did many Franks get as far as Bordeaux? How many people from all over the Empire are represented in Bordeaux in the fourth century? It’s a port so I’d suspect the answer to be ‘many’.

    Were 4th century port cities subject to the medieval rule that cities could not sustain their own populations and were dependent on migrants from the countryside (or wherever)?

  2. Indeed, in what is now Bordeaux, all kinds of people seem to have ‘stranded’, but peasants from the countryside trying to sell their products downtown were probably never completely unheard of. To name Celts as ‘Gallia’ is a Roman invention, and soon they were made ‘Roman’.

    The ‘Migration Period’ was in full swing (‘Foederati’), Syagrius, a local warlord had in the 5th century in what is now Northern France some sort of ‘Gallo-Roman’ kingdom, while the Franks were lurking in the East (i.e. in what is now the Eastern bits of France, Benelux and Germany), and in 486/7 a Frankish king by the name of Clovis put him to death.

    Odoacer had dismissed emperor Romulus Augustu(lu)s already in 476, in order to become king of what is now referred to as Italy, and then-Visigoth Bordeaux became Merovingian-Frankish by 508. In 732, the Battle of the River Garonne (‘Arabs’) was fought, however, with probably of no major importance for our ‘necropolis’, who knows ?

  3. “Merovingian” the culture of these long haired warriors still finds relevance, however circumstantially, into today’s stories through a famous fantasy writer and his HBO show ie Dhothraki. both never cut their hair. RR once said he read everything medieval he could get hands on and he incorporates so much of that into his writings.

  4. Very true, but here the ‘Keltoi’ were probably different ones, or at least some of them were. It’s probably fair to assume that the Greeks met them via the Rhone (the ‘Galli’) and the ‘Keltoi’ via the Danube/ ‘Ister’.

    Had they made what we know today as ‘France’ a Greek ‘province’, we would probably know (Μασσαλία / Massilia, for example, was a Greek colony). Besides, probably nobody in Greece would have considered himself as “Greek”, i.e. as long as no Persian tried to make THEM a province.

  5. The Greeks called themselves Hellenes and took the concept seriously. Hence Olympic Games and so forth, and the distinction between Hellenes and barbarians.

    As for the Celts, there are now historians who reject the whole concept as being largely a 19th century nationalist fabrication. They accept, I believe, that there is a language family that can reasonably given a label, and that “Celtic” may as well be that label, but simply don’t believe that there is any evidence worth tuppence that there ever was a Celtic “people” or “culture”.

  6. Yes and No – They both were certainly not ‘one people’, but in contrast to the northerners, the Greeks were rather soon ‘coordinated’.

    There was, however, without reasonable doubt and with a certain amount of evidence, a ‘Hellenistic’ culture as there was a ‘Celtic’ one. Of course, in the 19th and 20th century a lot of rubbish -you already mentioned it- was misinterpreted here.

    The Greek peoples were seemingly better organized, if you compare what -in a joint effort- might have been conquered as ‘Troy’ to e.g. the Celtic sack of Rome in 390BC and the defeat of the invading Cimbri, Teutones and Ambrones in the 2nd century BC or the battle in 9AD.

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