What 7 million skulls look like - the Paris Catacombs

My family went to London and Paris last week. One of the highlights was a self-guided tour through the Catacombs of Paris.

By Mark Frauenfelder at 4:16 pm Mon, Aug 12, 2013

We arrived at the entrance to the Catacombs 40 minutes before the doors opened at 10 AM, but we still had to wait nearly 2 hours to get in, because the line was already around the block. (By 10 AM the line was 10 times as long. I wonder if the people at the back of the line even made it for the last call at 4 PM.) After buying our tickets, we had to descend a long circular staircase to reach the beginning of the tunnels, which were over 60 feet underground.

These tunnels led to massive limestone quarries that supplied the building materials to construct Paris. They were actually started in the first century A.D. by Gallo Romans to build Lutetia (the forerunner of what is now known as Paris). The tunnels run for over 250 km below the city, but only 2 km are open to the public.

This is a carving of a palace by a quarry inspector who had served time in a prison situated across from a palace in the Balearic Islands. He started the carving in 1777 and finished it in 1782, using only his memory as a reference. According to the sign next to the sculpture he died from a "cave-in while trying to build an access stairway at this location."

A little farther along the tunnel, the famous ossuary appeared. A sign above the entrance reads, Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort (Halt, this is the realm of Death). The rest of the tour was through an 800-yard-long gallery stacked high with human bones. In fact, The catacombs hold the remains of 7 million people, which were transferred here in the 18th and 19th centuries because Parisian cemeteries were so overcrowded that they constituted a health hazard.

The bones we saw were completely unsupervised. You could touch them if you felt like it. I didn't, though. If this were in the United States, the walls would be lined with thick plastic.

Some of the arrangements were artistic, such as this big urn-shaped collection of skulls and bones.

It was overwhelming to think that every one of these skulls was once a living person with friends, a family, a job, and a reason to live. Who is this? We'll never know.

At the end of the ossuary gallery we walked up a very long claustrophobic circular staircase and exited through this nondescript door. Directly across the street is a privately run Catacombs gift shop, which has a free restroom, delicious espresso, free Wi-Fi, lots of skull-themed items for sale, and friendly staff!

Catacombs of Paris

Published 4:16 pm Mon, Aug 12, 2013

About the Author

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects


23 Responses to “What 7 million skulls look like - the Paris Catacombs”

  1. Romeo Vitelli says:

    There’s definitely security though.  When I was there, a security guard checked all baggage for people exiting the Catacombs to make sure nobody was bringing home a “souvenir”.  

  2. D Hendog says:

    Nicely done photo essay.  I enjoyed the comment about it being overwhelming to think about each one of those skulls having once been part of a living human, the

  3. GeekMan says:

    “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” – I loved that inscription. Chilling and sobering.

  4. Jim Saul says:

    That spiral staircase at the entrance is pretty tight… I wouldn’t recommend it for claustrophobes or people over a certain size.

    They wouldn’t allow flash or tripods when I was there, but the limitations created some funny accidental shots.

    • euansmith says:

      “It’s the Goat of Mendes! Satan himself!”

      • Jim Saul says:

        Herself, actually. It was a cute young college age couple. 

        I had been surreptitiously trying to catch a shot of the silhouette of them facing each other, but when I finally tried to communicate it in gestures they thought I was offering to take their picture with their camera. Those turned out interesting as well, but I didn’t trade emails or anything, so never saw the shots on a good screen.That was one of the areas with installed lights, to illuminate the inscriptions. It was still pretty dark… the settings were ISO 1600, 41mm, f/5.6, 1/5th second exposure. I think I was leaning against a post or the wall to keep it steady.That silhouette shot I wanted would have been awesome. She had a ponytail, as I recall…with the shadows turned to each other in such crisp relief against that spooky background it was a perfect image.

  5. stcorbett says:

    Best attraction in Paris. It’s creepy, fun, historical, not too crowded, and not too expensive :) In the past my visits have been stymied by the odd and limited hours that they are open for tours.

  6. Mister44 says:

    When I went to Italy I had a church that housed a bunch of bones like this on my itinerary. Unfortunately it was closed that year for renovations. I know it’s rather macabre, but I was really looking forward to that.

  7. TheMudshark says:

    I once had a holiday job at a construction company that was renovating a church. When we dug up the church floor we found two complete skeletons in a spooning position beneath it. After a short dicussion the crew decided not to call anyone about it and just threw them into the container where the rest of the dirt went, to not “loose a good day´s work over it”. I was 15 at the time so I didn´t have a say in that decision. I kept a finger bone as a keepsake. If I had known at the time what price a real human skull can fetch I would probably have kept them instead.

    • siskita says:

      So sad that the history of those two skeletons (where they came from, who they were) was lost to careless construction workers.  I would have hated that we lost the bones of someone of significance (remember Richard III’s skeleton recently found?) just because of ignorance, or if there was something interesting to learn about the church from the bones.   

  8. alexb says:

    Ever wondered where all the teeth from those skulls went?
    Also, did you do the sewer tour? That’s another “must do” for Paris.

  9. EggyToast says:

    Heh, I went to Paris in June and saw the catacombs, as well. Definitely one of the most unique places in the world, in my opinion, especially considering they’re actually open to the public. The entire area is a former quarry, and it’s also amazing to think that the quarry at the time was fully underground. Anyway, I also have pictures — it’s interesting that I think most pictures of the catacombs include the same structures! http://www.flickr.com/photos/derekarlanyoung/sets/72157634455224400/

  10. lacasamiami says:

    Best attraction in Paris, it’s creepy but dope at the same time. 
    http://www.lacasamiami.me/

  11. leo says:

    I don’t remember any lines when I visited the Catacombs around four years ago. What’s the reason for the massive lines now? Is Paris jealous of New York’s cronut and Rain Room lines?

  12. Jorpho says:

    Reportedly there’s a goodly number of people who make a sport of wandering off into the closed-off, non-public sections of the catacombs, with subsequent interesting results.

    I tried taking pictures of some of the other inscriptions with the intention of looking them up later, my French not quite being up to the task of penetrating poetic nuance, but the pictures didn’t come out very well.

  13. Randy Walters says:

    “The tunnels run for over 250 km below the city, but only 2 km are open to the public.”
    What I would give to leave the beaten path and explore that other 248 km, with a camera and some lights…

  14. euansmith says:

    The French do love their bones. Here’s an amazingly sinister looking Ossuary at Douaumont. It looks like something from a Boris Karlof film.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douaumont_ossuary

  15. soufron says:

    You should try to hook up with the explorers of the catacombs if you want to visit the remaining 248km of galleries… abandoned subway lines, old bunkers, etc… there are awesome things to see…

  16. Ali Wiseman says:

    Urban Exploration away from the tourist routes of the “Cata’s” is well known. A map is essential. Have a look around some of the UE sites to see what goes on.

  17. Dahi Koch says:

    loved the photo tour here.
    i would love to see it live one day. i had been to paris several times, but i never had the possibility to get there. unbelievable how long the queues are there already in the morning.

  18. siskita says:

    You are not allowed to take flash photography of the bones, nor even TOUCH them.  And it’s dangerous to go into any blocked off areas of the catacombs – cave-ins and dark areas would be very hazardous.  It was a beautiful experience walking through those bones a few months ago, but the most awful part of the experience was hearing the loud groups of families, Tourists, and teenagers walking by, being extremely loud – I would wait until they passed me by so I could slowly walk through the rooms in peace.  I respected the place as part cemetery, part history lesson, part work of art. 

    I recommend the audio tour, which you can purchase at the beginning. 

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