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Catacombs

Philippe Charlier sets his plastic shopping bag on a battered chair and rubs his hands. It is cool and dark in this tomb. Water droplets gleam on the ceiling, and the air smells of mold and damp earth. The dead surround us, stacked like cordwood, walls of eye sockets and the scrolled ends of femurs. Charlier reaches into the bag, which is full of bones he'll borrow, and slips out a skull the color of parchment. Chips of bone and dirt tumble out. "I love the patina—not all white and clean," he says.

Six stories above us, in the cafés of Montparnasse, waiters are brushing off tables, setting out chalkboard menus. It is nearly lunchtime.

Charlier reaches again into his bag and finds the front plate of another skull—a face. We stare into it. Beneath the sockets the bone is pitted and sunken. The nasal opening is enlarged and rounded. Charlier is an archaeologist and forensic pathologist at the University of Paris; the face in his hands may as well be contorted in a grimace. "This is a sign of advanced leprosy," he says cheerfully. He hands me the face, dives back into his bag. I think of hand sanitizer.

On normal days the catacombs would ripple with sound—the echoed voices and uneasy laughter of tourists who sometimes endure hour-long waits to enter. But today the place is closed. Charlier can browse the bones in peace.

Some six million Parisians reside here, nearly three times the population of the city above. Their skeletons were exhumed from overcrowded cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries and literally poured into old quarry tunnels. Some of the more recent date from the French Revolution; the oldest may hail from the Merovingian era, more than 1,200 years ago. All are anonymous, disarticulated. All individuality forgotten.

But Charlier picks story fragments from their bones: the diseases and accidents they suffered, the wounds that healed or did not, the food they ate, their surgical practices. From down here Charlier can see what life was once like in the sunlight. He rummages in his bag.

"Ah!" he says, squinting at lesions on a vertebra. "Malta fever!"

Our breath gathers in clouds along the ceiling. Water plunks in the distance. Charlier considers the chunk of spine. Malta fever, or brucellosis, strikes people who come into contact with infected animals or their secretions, such as milk.

"This person was maybe a cheesemaker," Charlier says.

I look down the corridor. We stand in a kind of library; ten thousand more stories like the fromager's lie within view. When Charlier rides the Métro back to his office, a few of them will be in the plastic bag at his feet.

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