On hill near the city of Lyon in southeastern France, archaeologists have found human remains dating back to the time that the entire region was under the rule of Rome. A veritable city of the dead – a necropolis – was discovered on Fourvière hill, which overlooks a settlement that dates to the time before Christ. Close to an ancient Roman amphitheater and a medieval basilica, the cemetery has revealed numerous skeletons that have added to knowledge about the nascent Gallo-Roman and Christian culture of France. To this day, Lyon bears the moniker ‘capital of the Gauls.”
The site is located on the eastern slope of the hill dominated by the church of St. Irenaeus, where the saint’s tomb was long been revered as a place of pilgrimage. In Roman times, the place was in the suburbs and near a road called “La Favorite", which was lined with monumental Roman tombs. The site that was excavated this year was active as a cemetery from the 4th century to the 7th century A.D. Excavations are going on between the places where two early churches once stood.
The excavation site at Lyon is extensive, surrounded by specially contructed retaining walls for protection
It was following the murder of Julius Caesar in 43 B.C. that the Roman Senate ordered two of his lieutenants to found a refuge for Romans who fled barbarian Gauls from a nearby town called Vienne. The Romans set a foundation for a small fortress on Fourvière hill and called it Colonia Copia Felix Munatia, in the expectation that their gods would shower prosperity and other blessings upon the huddled inhabitants.
In time, the locals called the settlement Lugdunum or Lugudunum, which in Gaulish may be translated as ‘Desired Mountain,’ or Lugus (the Celtic god of light) and dúnon (hill-fort). Two notable Roman emperors were born in what became known as Lyon: Claudius and Caracalla. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who ruled the empire from 454 B.C. to 12 B.C. recognized the strategic importance of Lyon as a cross-roads on the natural route between southern and northern Gaul, making it the hub of Roman roads. These roads became a feature so necessary for the movement of troops, merchandise, ideas, and religion.
Archaeologists kept records of their findings, which include clues as to the cause of death of the Christians buried in the cemetery
Christianity came gradually to southern France, coming directly from Asia. By the second century, there were Greek-speaking Christians residing in Lyon and nearby Vienne.
St. Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna - which lies in the country now known as Turkey - a disciple of St. John the Apostle, sent Irenaeus to Lyon. Later, St. Irenaeus traveled to Rome in 177 A.D. with a letter for Pope Eleutherus attesting to the presence of Christians in that part of Gaul. The letter constitutes the first documentary evidence of the Christian church in the region. While Irenaeus was in Rome, St. Pothinus – the first bishop of Lyon – was martyred along with several other Christians during a persecution unleashed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Ireneaus return to Gaul and became the second bishop of Lyon, from whence he set about on missions to spread the Christian faith once Marcus Aurelius died in 180 A.D. He became revered for his saintliness and learning, becoming known eventually as one of the Fathers of the Church. However, Christians would suffer persecution later on during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus. But it was not until 312 A.D. that Christians were accorded tolerance by the imperial authorities. It was then that the Emperor Constantine issued his Edit of Milan that gave official status to the faith.
Excavations were conducted carefully by experts from the French agency charged with preserving archaeological sites
This year, on less than an acre of land overlooking the historic city, 20 experts from the French Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) have been conducting careful excavations on some 600 graves of the early Christians. Digging in the mixed clay and sand soil, they have uncovered the mortal remains of men, women and children dating back some 15 centuries and to the earliest years of Christianity in Europe. The entire necropolis, which is found on a plot that also once was home to a convent, has yet to be uncovered. More skeletons, big and small, may yet to be discovered as the archaeologists continue their delicate work.
The remains of numerous infants and newborns were found
According to the director of the dig, Emmanuel Ferber, archaeologists have found evidence of wooden coffins in numerous cases, while at least one skeleton was found in the hollow trunk of a tree. Ferber said, “Also found were amphorae (ed. Note: clay jars) for the burial of newborn infants, in addition to evidence from the Roman era, and the reuse of Roman mausoleums.” In one case, a marble frieze exhibiting a carved griffon was repurposed as a sarcophagus.
It was common for the early Christians to be buried in wooden coffins, but some showed signs of being covered with stones
Ferber explained the reason for the density of human remains found on the site, saying that “During the Christian era, people came to be buried close to churches where they felt protected.” The graves are found close to the church of St. Irenaeus, who was one of the first saints canonized by the church. The fact that the saint was buried at this church made it a place of pilgrimage, and was a factor that attracted Christians to be buried there, said Ferber.
Heavy equipment was used for some of the excavation, and to build retaining walls and footings
That so many remains are found so close together has been a boon to the assembled archaeologists rather than a hindrance. Ferber asserted that the close proximity of the bones to each other allows experts to examine them in one go, obtaining a greater amount of data than they would have otherwise. The data allows experts to come to educated conclusions about the lives of people who lived, worked, and died more than a millennium ago. Some skeletons were found to overlap each other near the churches that were there. Later burials were found to be more regular, with skeletons being lain next to each other in rows.
The earliest graves were sometimes jumbled together and overlapping
The skeletons’ good condition has allowed experts from outside the archaeological profession to theorize even the cause of death for some of the Gallo-Romans who were buried there. For example, a dentist concluded that on the basis of teeth he examined, the owner of the teeth had had a dental abscess that eventually killed him.
With the help of LEM building contractor, archaeologists worked quickly to preserve remains
There have not been many excavations in France of archeological sites of the early Christian era. The find at Fourvière was preserved by INRAP with cooperation from the land developer that plans to build luxury housing on the site. Emilie Delloye of LEM, the developer of the building site, said that the archaeogical excavation has not appreciably increased the length of time needed to complete her project. Delloye said that, from the beginning, her company had calculated that nine months of archaeological excavation would be needed. She said “It’s all a question of organization; we work very closely with INRAP, and it has gone very well.” The first luxury apartments are expected to be occupied by December 2017.
Archaeologists found Roman sculptures that had been repurposed for burials
According to Jean -Yves Rannou, LEM operations manager
, the project required a year of preparation since walls had to be built around the graves and concrete injected underneath in order to consolidate the soil. Footings were dug into the perimetre of the site to a depth of 40 feet to reinforce the walls. The entire site covers 2500 square meters, or 0.61 acres. On October 16, INRAP announced that excavation would continue until the end of December 2015 along the Montée de Choulans, close to Place Wernert in the 5th arrondissement of Lyon.
Excavation continues into December 2015 but does not pose a delay for building luxury apartments on the site