What should be done when mine tunnels start caving in and cemeteries start overflowing? These are two questions Paris city managers found themselves asking in the late 18th century. At that time, illicit mining practices and unregulated burial practices meant Parisian officials needed to quickly find a solution. The winning proposition was to transfer exhumed remains to the underground mining tunnels for long term storage. Thus was born the municipal ossuary, more commonly known as the catacombs. A popular tourist attraction since 1874, this site remains a must-see for those seeking to learn more about Paris’ creepy past.
Find out how all those bones got there
The Paris catacombs host the remains of over 6 million former residents. This spooky total certainly begs the question, who were these people and how did they get there? Originally, Paris’ dead were buried in the center of the Right Bank Settlement. Saint Innocent’s Cemetery was the biggest and best known. It was located near the modern-day Les Halles district in central Paris. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, Saint Innocent’s battled overpopulation problems. For many centuries, long-buried bodies were exhumed and the skeletons placed in holding galleries within the cemeteries. This method did little to mitigate the overcrowding problem, and thus the catacombs idea was devised. Bones from Saint Innocents, and 150 other cemeteries, were transferred to the catacombs during a series of nightly processions between 1786 and 1789.
Get lost in the tunnels
The catacombs network is extensive, covering 320 kilometers (200 miles). The catacomb visit covers about 2.2 kilometers (1 mile) of this extensive system. During the visit, visitors remark several memorials signifying where each set of bones came from, the date they were transported, and the date they were installed in the catacombs. It is also incredible to study the symmetry and careful layout of the bones. Some have been arranged in columns, in hearts, and in the form of crosses, while the rest are stacked in neat piles deeper than the eye can see.
Plunge into a geology lesson
While the bones are certainly the highlight of the visit, visitors should also take advantage of the opportunity to learn about Paris’ geology during their time underground. As visitors descend from street level to the catacombs, they are not simply approaching the ossuary, but they are also taking a trip back in time; nearly 45 million years in time.
With each step, visitors traverse several layers of rock until arriving at the limestone bed. This layer dates between 40 and 48 million years old and corresponds with the Lutetian period. Stone from this period was first discovered in Paris. Therefore, it was named after Paris’ original name, Lutetia. Samples of this, and other types of rock that make up Paris’ foundation are on display during the visit. These displays help to bring the information alive for visitors as they can touch and study the rocks.
Lutetian limestone is well-adapted for building. The first quarrying of the stone began during the Roman colonization of Paris (1st century A.D.) and continued through the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, as well as other Gothic monuments in Paris are built from this stone. It is incredible to learn about Paris’ other famous monuments in such depth.
Don't miss this fascinating attraction
A visit to Paris’ catacombs means an intimate look into the city’s past. This is an ideal visit for those looking to enrich their understanding of Paris in an unconventional manner. The Catacombs can be reached via the Regional Express Railway (RER) B, subway lines 4 or 6, stop Denfert-Rochereau. They are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10.00 AM to 8.00 PM. Visitors should plan about 45 minutes for this attraction. Tickets cost 12 EUR (13 USD) for adults and 10 EUR (11 USD) for those under 25.
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