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Paris reveals Lutetia
May 5th, 2006

Thanks to the law, that states that a construction in central Paris cannot begin until archaeologists have had a chance to investigate, archeologists have discovered many historical layers, mostly romans, under the Pierre and Marie Curie University that decided to replace a temporary structure with a research building.
They started digging at Rue Saint-Jacques early last month and almost immediately made one of their best finds in recent years: the remains of a road and several houses that are believed to be 2,000 years old.
Remnants of private houses rigged with baths and ingeniously heated floors were among the findings, now on view in a stunning dig. Over the next few weeks, however, archaeologists will rip up the ruins to make way for a research center.
The archeologists gradually remove every layer of ruins until they reach the geological stratum - the original ground - and eventually draw a chronological diagram.
"Excavating is destroying. We dig into historic layer after historic layer," said Didier Busson, scientific supervisor of the archaeological site.
The discovery offers a window onto one of the many layers of history underpinning this bustling capital. Items from daily life such as flowerpots, ceramics, bronze chains and drawer handles were dug out and will soon be exhibited in museums.
"We are trying to find out about the foundation and founders of the city," Busson said, adding, "It is exceptional that a Parisian site be so well-preserved."
The Convent of the Visitation covered the 4,400-square-foot plot from the early 17th century until 1910, when it was demolished. One long-buried wall of the convent has been uncovered. Now quite visible is a road 20 feet wide, as well as the walls and floors of at least three houses. In one house, archaeologists have been able to identify an under-the-floor thermal heating system. And across the site, coins and ceramic shards have been found.
Further, this area was inhabited long enough for stone walls to replace earlier clay-and-wood building material.
The significance of such finds is what they reveal about earlier times. It is known that early settlers around the Île de la Cité burned their houses before they were conquered by a Roman legion under Labienus in 52 B.C. But in the decades that followed, a new town was built on the Left Bank, which eventually had a population of 12,000 to 20,000.
Then, after the first barbarian incursions in A.D. 253, the population apparently withdrew from the hill of Sainte-Geneviève and sought refuge behind new walls on the Île de la Cité, which was called Paris, borrowing the name of the ancient Gallic Parisii tribe. Thus, because the archaeologists have found no traces of occupation of the site between the 4th and 17th centuries, they have been able to confirm that even an area little more than a mile from the Seine was long considered insecure for habitation.

Archaeologists work last week at the site of ruins discovered in Paris
Photo by Jean Ayissi AFP Getty images

"It was a neighborhood of the Augustan period," continues Didier Busson. "It may have been founded by Gauls who had been in the Roman army and settled here, bringing with them their experience of building."
Archeologists are divided over the background of this neighborhood's builders. Most contend that a Gallic aristocracy, recruited by the Roman army to fight in their civil wars, probably came back from the battlefield and settled in the area.
The Romanized returnees built the city according to Roman norms, but used local materials. They were wealthy enough to own a private Roman bath - the jacuzzi of the era - found in one of the houses discovered beneath the university.
The archaeologists identified the various historical layers they uncovered according to the various types of houses they excavated. The first houses were made of clay and straw. Masonry appeared only later and so did tiled roofs - "a major chronological milestone," according to Busson.
This urban compound was built in the first decade of the 1st century, at the end of emperor Augustus's reign, away from the administrative center of the Roman city.
The neighborhood stands on the old "cardo maximus," the Roman main street, which was originally paved for the Romans to cross the nearby Seine River and is today the Rue St. Jacques in Paris' chic 5th arrondissement, or district.
"Paradoxically, a conservation of the sites would prevent us from learning more about ancient Paris," Busson said.
"It's like a mille-feuilles cake," said Francois Renel, Busson's assistant and an archaeologist specialized in antiquities, referring to a pastry with many layers.
The National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research, known by its French acronym INRAP, has been watching out for construction work in the neighborhood since they realized some 25 years ago that the Roman city of Lutetia was much larger than earlier believed.
Whenever construction work in central Paris is planned, archaeologists review the building permits and ask for INRAP's opinion if the site is of interest. An excavation permit is then issued.
Busson's INRAP team have only until late June to complete their studies because, after that, construction will begin. But Busson is nonetheless satisfied with what has been achieved.
"Thirty years ago, this site would have been destroyed even before we had a chance to excavate it," he said. "Maybe in 20 years it will be possible to preserve things as we find them."


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