Charenton Cemetery:
An Archaeological Discovery

"You were born to die..." Charenton temple was born and died twice within a century.
Allegorical engraving published in the early 1600's by Eberhard Kieser, Frankfurt, shows the first temple.

Before 1598 there were bitter disputes between Catholics and Protestants over the issue of cemeteries, and desecrations were common as "heretics" were exhumed on both sides. After the horrors of the wars of religion, the Edict of Nantes promulgated by Henri IV established a coexistence of the catholics and Protestants, restoring to the latter the freedom to worship at specific locations, however it imposed separate cemeteries for them with parochial cemeteries in the cities being reserved only for catholics.

In 2005 French archaeologists have for the first time undertaken the study of a Protestant cemetery, in Charenton (the Valley-of-Marne), on grounds that have remained void of any construction since the XVII century when two temples had risen on this site. They estimate that more than one hundred skeletons must be on this site with a surface area of 900m2 which was to be excavated over 40 days with four anthropologists of the INRAP. The team hoped to better understand, thanks to this discovery, what the funerary rites of the Protestants were in the XVIIème century, and how they differed from that of catholics.

It is the vestiges of the first temple which the person in charge of the building site, Jean-Yves Dufour, hoped to discover on the ground of the cemetery which was excavated. Four column bases were uncovered but the stones still needed to be authenticated.

After the first temple was burned down in sectarian strife in 1621, the second temple of Charenton, built in 1623 with a seating capacity of 4000, became the largest in France, and its cemetery was the place where Parisian Protestants were obliged to bury their dead. The Edict of Nantes prohibited the 12,000 huguenots in the capital city to build places of worship and to be buried within city limits so Charenton was the ideal location. The temple, built along the shore of the Marne River in the south-east of Paris, was accessible to the faithful by boats.

Today it is the first Protestant cemetery ever studied. Until now archaeology has never been interested in the places of burial of those of the RPR "alleged reformed religion". The INRAP (National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research) in France now seeks to catalog their peculiarities with the assistance of Protestant historian, Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard.

An examination of the tombs above ground, and confirmed by the excavations, indicate an absence of any ritual that could cause scandal at the time, she explains. This sobriety was dictated by the Edict of Nantes which obliged the Protestants to bury their dead during the night, without any funeral procession and under the watchful eye of an archer in order to curb any riot or lawlessness. But this plain funeral was also wanted by the Protestants themselves to show a distinction from the catholic's rites for their dead. Thus there were no prayers for the deceased, no graveside preaching, and not even an inscribed marker or flowers. The world of the dead was completely separate from that of the living. At that time the cemetery was made to resemble a cherry orchard.

Their distinctives with regard to death marked a 'cultural revolution' between the two religious communities. Reformed doctrines reject the idea of Purgatory, the mass, the worship of saints, and the use of relics. Jean Calvin recommended an "honest" funeral, i.e. one that is dignified but without the trappings of superstitious pretensions: no tombstone, no preaching at the gravesite, no offerings or prayers for the deceased. The catholics, on the other hand, practised a worship of the dead and viewed cemeteries as sacred places. Neither do the archaeologists find any personal belongings. The Protestants opposed the popular belief that the dead carried objects with them into paradise. Thus the skeletons reveal only some rings which the deceased people wore in everyday life.

But some elements do not match the written texts of the time. Why are all the bodies found up to now (around fifty), except for some children, facing east? Is this to see Jerusalem at the moment of resurrection? Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard does not have an answer. Another peculiarity is that the cemetery was contiguous to the temple. Whereas the Protestants did not attach any religious significance to the building itself, contrary to the catholics, "It likely was for reasons of topography; they simply had no other option", suggests Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard.

Besides being carefully aligned in a certain direction, the bodies' last incongruity is that they are mixed. The skeletons are superimposed and tight one against the other without reference to sex, whereas catholics tended to separate the tombs of men and women. But between these aligned bodies there is no lane or alley which allows visitors to circulate.

The archaeologists expect to find at least one hundred bodies, perhaps many more. The excavations at Charenton could also shed some light on the social conditions of the XVII century. This cemetery accomodated people of modest means while another Protestant cemetery, a few hundred meters away and today covered over by buildings, was reserved for people of the middle-class and aristocracy.

The remains of the young people may be able to reveal much about the state of hygiene and health at the time - things like rickets in children, detectable by the curve of their legs, or certain pronounced scolioses. In their research the anthropologists will undoubtedly find traces of the plague, the great plague of the century. Another indicator which reveals the state of poverty of the people buried there is that the archaeologists find very little wood in the tombs. Each body did not have its own coffin. Burial was generally carried out using a linen shroud. This is confirmed by the presence of many pins.

In November of 1865, the year that the Edict of Nantes was revoked, the temple at Charenton was demolished and Parisian Protestants no longer had any official place to bury their dead. Burials were then performed in secret, in particular cellars or gardens.

This cemetery was taken over by the convent sisters of Val-d'Osne who preserved its fruit trees and the appearance of an orchard. Until recently the area was still being used as a greenhouse. After the excavations are complete in July 2005, a house for senior citizens will rise on the terrain but it will be built on piles in order to keep the grounds intact.

Former Charenton Temple II (yellow) and
last exposed vestiges of Huguenot cemetery in shaded area (pink).
The digging site extended further to the right. (See below)

Archaeological digging site, 2005
Charenton city hall is just to the left.
A new senior citizen's complex was built over the cemetery.

As expected, all the bodies were on the left side of the digging site.
Pictures courtesy of Inrap. Download .pdf file

Paleontology Results of this Archaeological Dig (Source: Tunisian Association of Anthropology)
Microbiology Report (Source: Paleobios, Lyon, France)

Grounds: 1685 / Grounds: 1906

Temple of Charenton emroidery

Virtual Museum of French Protestantism
Priscille Muller-Lafitte and Sylvie Briet

With more than 1,800 collaborators and researchers INRAP is the largest French archaeological organisation and one of the foremost in Europe. A public research establishment, it carries out most of the archaeological evaluations and excavations in France. Within the framework of national and regional planning policy, it acts on behalf of private and public property developers (local and regional authorities, Motorway companies, French railroad system, etc.). More that 2,500 excavation sites are undertaken each year in mainland France and in the D.O.M. (French overseas departments).

Site Director: Jean-Yves Dufour, INRAP
Preventive Archaeology Operator: INRAP
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