Remember plaster of Paris from elementary-school art class? It’s made from gypsum which is one of the mineral deposits upon which Paris is built. For centuries, and possibly millennia, Parisians quarried the limestone and gypsum left by the ancient sea that used to cover this portion of France. The result is a swiss-cheese effect – a series of tunnels under the city that put the buildings above it on very uncertain ground. Over the past two centuries, engineers have built and reinforced walls within the quarries, but they continue to monitor the spreading cracks of the subterranean ceiling. There are street signs on some of the underground walls indicating what section of the city you’re under. These signs are largely inaccurate now. In the mid-to-late-1800’s, Georges-Eugene Haussmann, under the direction of Napoleon III, directed the destruction of much of medieval Paris and built what we see today. On Thursday we descended 25 meters under the city – under the water and sewer lines, under the subway – to witness the results of all that quarrying and to see how the mined area was used two hundred years ago and the reason it’s now called the Catacombs.
Below: Décure, an 18th-century quarry worker, spent his brief break time carving beautiful sculptures into the rock. This one represents the prison/fort where he had been a prisoner when he was a soldier. He eventually died in the quarry when the staircase he was carving collapsed on him.
Remnants of the seabed:
In the late 1700’s, a Parisian wine merchant’s cellar collapsed and filled with, among other things, some bones from the nearby cemetery. He and the other local winemakers (comprising a powerful wine lobby, according to our tour guide) petitioned the government to move the remains from the overused, poorly-maintained cemetery. The government responded by moving an estimated six million skeletons from a number of cemeteries over the course of decades to the Parisian quarries. They are stacked so neatly, and in some cases artistically, that I didn’t think about until now what was done with the pelvises and ribs that couldn’t be stacked so nicely. I read another blog that says those bones are in other rooms that are not part of the official tour. The Paris mines are extensive; the view from the 90-minute official tour is a very small piece of that. Some people find their way into the unofficial parts, but there are a few tourists each year who have to be rescued when they lose their way. I decided we should just stick to the guided tour.
During the Second World War, the tunnels were used both by the French Resistance and the Nazis. Although the two groups were aware of the other’s existence within the labyrinth, they never did encounter each other underground.