Archaeologists have found in southeastern France a veritable city of the dead – a necropolis – that dates back to the 3rd century after Christ. In the historic city of Lyon, which was conquored by the Romans, excavation has been going on feverishly throughout the summer of 2015 on a hill known as Fourvière. Close to an ancient Roman amphitheater and a medieval basilica, the cemetery has revealed skeletons that have added to knowledge about early Christian culture of Europe.
The site is located on the eastern slope of Fourvière hill close to the church of St. Irenaeus, where the saint’s tomb was once revered as a place of pilgrimage. Christians sought out the place for several centuries as a place to bury their loved ones, or as their own final resting place. The remains of hundreds of men, women, and children have been brought to light by experts from the French Institute for Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP). The approximately one acre site is awaiting construction of a luxury apartment complex, but archaeologists are confident that they can remove the human remains and learn what they can before delayed construction begins again.
The excavation site at Lyon is extensive, surrounded by specially contructed retaining walls for protection
It was following the murder of Emperor Julius Caesar in 43 B.C. that a refuge was founded at Lyon for Romans who were fleeing the onslaught of the Gauls – the original Celtic inhabitants of France who had been largely conquered by Roman might. The name Lyon is derived from the Gaulish word, Lugdunum, which may be translated as ‘Desired Mountain,’ or Lugus (the Celtic god of light) and dúnon (hill-fort). Two later Roman emperors, Claudius and Caracalla, were born there. Lyon became a place of strategic importance to the Romans since it lies along a 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
Archaeologists found Roman sculptures that had been repurposed for burials
Christianity came gradually to southern France, coming directly from the area that is now Turkey. By the 2nd century after Christ, Greek-speaking Christians were residing in Lyon. St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, sent St. Irenaeus to Lyon. In a letter Irenaeus wrote to Pope Eleutherus in 177 A.D., he described the Christians living there. While Irenaeus was in Rome, St. Pothinus – the first bishop of Lyon – was martyred during a persecution unleashed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Irenaeus returned to Gaul, becoming revered for his wisdom and saintliness. He became known after his death as a Father of Church because of his defense of orthodoxy. But it was not until 312 A.D. that Christians were accorded tolerance by an edict from Emperor Constantine.
Excavations were conducted carefully by experts from the French agency charged with preserving archaeological sites
This year, 20 experts from INRAP have been conducting careful excavations on some 600 graves on the site. Digging in the mixed clay and sand soil, they have also found that the necropolis was also lying on the site of a convent. There may be more skeletons, big and small, that are yet to be discovered as the archaeologists continue their delicate work.
Heavy equipment was used for some of the excavation, and to build retaining walls and footings
Archaeologist Emmanuel Ferber reported that evidence of wooden coffins has been found, while at least one skeleton was found in the hollowed 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 Roman marble sculpture exhibiting a carved griffon was reused as a burial chamber.
The remains of numerous infants and newborns were found
With the help of LEM building contractor, archaeologists worked quickly to preserve remains
Ferber explained, “During the Christian era, people came to be buried close to churches where they felt protected.” Christians sought to be buried close to the holy Irenaeus and their ancestors. Having so many skeletons close together has made the archaeologists’ job easier. The data they have collected allows experts to make educated guesses about the lives of people who nearly 1,500 years ago. Some skeletons were found to overlap each other near the churches in an irregular pattern. Later burials were found to be more regular, with skeletons being lain next to each other in rows.
It was common for the early Christians to be buried in wooden coffins, but some showed signs of being covered with stones
The skeletons’ good condition has allowed experts theorize the cause of death of some of those buried on the site. For example, on the basis of teeth that were examined, an expert concluded that the owner of the teeth had had a dental abscess that eventually killed him.
The earliest graves were sometimes jumbled together and overlapped
There have not been many excavations of archeological sites of the early Christian era. The find a Fourvière was preserved by INRAP with cooperation from a land developer that plans to build luxury housing on the site. Emilie Delloye of LEM, the developer of the building site, said that the archeological 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. 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.