Tour des Fouilles (21): Pagans under the Nôtre Dame de Paris

Since its construction in the Middle Ages, the Nôtre Dame de Paris was used as burial ground for its bishops, arch-bishops and priests. As you may imagine, things began to get a bit crowded after a while, and in the early 18th century, it was decided to build a new crypt, underneath the choir, as a final resting place for arch-bishops. Construction began in the early spring of 1710. While excavating the space needed for the crypt, the workers unexpectedly encountered - underneath the medieval burials - 'nine cubic stones, with on each of their vertical sides a different relief accompanied with an inscription'.  

Paris: Pillar of the boatmen - Cernunnos [source]

The stones turned out to be part of one and the same monument - now known as the 'Pillar of the Boatmen'. The 'pre-christian' (as the excavators put it) monument shows both Gaulish and Roman gods - the sympathetic, horned figure on the above picture is Cernunnos, who indeed looks a bit like he has just escaped from an Asterix story. It is assumed that the once stood, proudly, on the Île de la Cité, but when it was found its components were reused in a late antique quay. It is not a completely unique monument - comparable remains of a pillar with gods were found in Nijmegen, in 1980. 

Like the pillar of Nijmegen, the Pillar of Lutetia was dedicated to emperor Tiberius, which means that it was erected somewhere between 14 and 37 AD. Indeed, this is rather early on: the pillar shows how quickly the local tribes integrated Greco-Roman religion into their own religious world, but also how persistent local deities were - initially. Thus, the monument is, one could say, quintessentially Gallo-Roman. 

The inscription also mentions that it was erected by a group of nautae - boatmen (hence the name):

Tib(erio) Caesare / Aug(usto) Iovi Optumo / Maxsumo s(acrum) / nautae Parisiac[i] / publice posierunt

If you read Latin, you can see the text contains a number of spelling mistakes; for example, 'maxsumo' should be 'maximo', and 'posierunt' should be 'posuerunt'. The people who wrote this were not yet completely familiar with the language of the Romans, it seems. Still, they wanted to express themselves the Roman way.

Yet, particularly interesting from a modern perspective, is how the nautae specify their provenance: they do not call themselves the nautae of Lutetia, but the 'nautae parisiaci' - the Parisian shippers, or so. Indeed, this is one of the earliest surviving attestations of the name of Paris - which thus seems to antedate the Roman period.

Paris: Drawing of the pillar of the boatmen - [source]

 

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