A Descent into the true heart of Paris – the Archaeological Crypt of Notre-Dame de Paris

The Parisienne behind the reception desk giggled, and quickly handed me my correct change. I’d just bought a ticket for the ‘Archaeological Crypt of Notre-Dame de Paris’, and among my change, I found myself staring at … a gold-foil coated chocolate ‘coin’. (: 

It was my first visit to this museum – which is located below the ‘Parvis Notre-Dame’. The ‘Parvis’ is the courtyard in front of the Cathedral. It’s what allows you to get a wonderful view of Notre-Dame’s iconic visage. The Cathedral and the Archaeological Crypt are situated on the Île de la Cité, an island in the River Seine, the historic core of Paris, and in a political sense, the core of France. Just to make it official, the Parvis also contains Paris’s ‘point zéro’ - the spot where all distances to and from Paris are measured from.

For my first visit to Paris, I’d deliberately approached Notre-Dame from the back streets– and then sat on a bench for half an hour admiring its backside. Only then did I head around to see the all too familiar (from photos) front. I explored Notre-Dame’s insides, and was duly impressed. It was only when I headed out, that I discovered the entrance to the Archaeological Crypt. It wasn’t exactly obvious – I barely noticed the steps leading down to the entrance (pictured at top). This was a very good sign - quite unlike another underground attraction – the Paris Catacombs, the entrance wasn’t marked by a snaking queue of tired and snaky visitors.

The cellar of a house exposed in the Crypt.

Once down inside the Crypt, you enter into darkened world of subdued, carefully directed lights. What has been uncovered and preserved down here, are the remains of structures dating back before Notre-Dame was built (in the 12th to 14th century), as well as some from when the Parvis was much smaller, and surrounded by densely packed buildings. A system of catwalks allow you to look into, or down onto a range of excavated structures that are now below the ground level of the Île de la Cité. There are also multimedia shows, scale models, and more traditional cabinet-collections of objects (like coins) which were discovered during excavation.

A view across a Roman ‘thermal bath’ with the reception and shop area of the Crypt in the background

Some of what you can view up close in the Crypt go back to Roman times of the 3rd and 4th century. These include part of a defensive rampart and also a Roman ‘thermal bath’ where columns of bricks held the floor above a space where hot air circulated which came from a nearby ‘hot-room’.

But for me, the most thought-provoking sight down in the Crypt, is a Roman quay. It features stone steps which once led down to the edge of the Seine. However, the river is no longer there - it’s 50 m away. The Seine is, or rather was, a meandering river. The Île de la Cité is the result of a typical process that happens on meandering rivers – a ‘cut off shute’. During some ancient flood, the river cut an extra channel, and left an island (or islands – there is also the smaller Île Saint Louis) in between. The island upon which Notre-Dame sits is one of many such islands on the Seine, and they naturally made good defensive locations, and at the same time, the easiest spots to ford (two channels are shallower than one) and to bridge (two smaller gaps). Paris, which was originally the Gallo–Roman town of Lutetia, owes its existence to this favourable location.

Massive stone blocks of the ramparts.

That stone Roman quay represents one of the oldest examples of a ‘hard’ modification to the edge of the Seine. Its purpose was to nail down that point and make it predictable – so that Roman boaties always had a spot they could come and go from with ease.

But over the centuries since, more and more development has constrained the Seine, up and downstream. Its natural meanders have been straightened, and its channel narrowed. That ancient quay is a poignant reminder that, despite all the concrete and rock, our cities began their lives in what were wild landscapes – in which wild processes operated. There are limited chances of ‘rewilding’ the Île de la Cité, but there are now several commendable efforts to ‘rewild’ parts of the Seine, or its tributaries (such as the Bièvre) and let them meander again, and even to make the Seine swimmable.

Paving stones and cobble stones, exposed in the Crypt.

As I left the Crypt, I said goodbye to the women at the reception desk and, as I headed back up the steps to the open sky, I peeled the gold foil off my chocolate ‘change’, and popped it in my mouth. Here I was, in the geographical center of Paris (and by some reckoning, of France itself). But the descent into the Archaeological Crypt added a further dimension – depth, and, arguably a fourth – that of time. That decent was the critical factor that made me feel like I had entered the ‘true heart’ of Paris. For that reason, I’ve now been down there twice.

And next time I’m in Paris, I’ll make it the third!

Currently the hours are 10:00 – 18:00 and a basic ticket is 9 Euro (or it is included in the Paris Museum Pass). It is accessible to disabled visitors.

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Mike Pole

Mike Pole is a New Zealander, whose core interest is the palaeobotany and climate change of his country. He has taught ecology to American students in Australia, worked as an exploration geologist in Mongolia, Indonesia and Turkey, and spent a year as a visiting professor in China. He enjoys traveling, and museums – particularly those covering local archaeology, always feature on his trips.