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18th century cemetery uncovered in Marseille

An eighteenth century cemetery consisting of some 800 graves has been uncovered by Metro works in the French city of Marseille.

18th century cemetery uncovered in Marseille
Archaeologists excavating the eighteenth century cemetery discovered in 
the French city of Marseille [Credit: Thierry Maziers/Inrap]
Located in the northern suburbs, the cemetery of Petites-Crottes, as it was called at the time, was used between 1784 and 1905 before becoming a dumping ground for industrial waste in 1930.

"We knew from historical archives that there was a cemetery in the area but we did not know where," said Anne Richier, an archaeologist from Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives (Inrap) which is in charge of the excavations.

The burials, which were discovered in 2013, are in good condition.

Most coffins are made of wood, some of lead, and the skeletons are often very well preserved.

Some still have the fabrics of their clothing, uniform buttons, shoes and even rosaries.

Among the most startling discoveries, a small rifle found alongside the leg of a child. "His family wanted to bury him with his favorite toy," says one of the archaeologists working on the site.

Other surprising finds include a corpulent man buried with his tallboy and a red jar containing a fetus.

"We know that at the time it was common to preserve fetuses in formalin," says archaeologist Anne Richier, adding "in this case we assume someone wanted to bury a woman with her lost child."

Through their discoveries, archaeologists are also learning more about burial practices of the eighteenth century and the characteristics of the local population.

"We will determine the sex, age, nutritional deficiencies, diseases of individuals. All these lives, studied together will tell us the story of the society at that time," said Anne Richier.

The discovery of this cemetery also reflects the evolution of Marseille's northern neighborhoods which hosted some of the many mills and soap factories of the city.

The local population, which lived in quite modest conditions, was joined in the nineteenth century by Italians who flocked to Marseille to find work in the factories.

The vault of one wealthy family was also discovered. "We know that the girl buried with her father was the widow of a Finnish baron. So we'll start researching to find his descendants," says Anne Richier.

Source: Les in Rocks [April 29, 2014]

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