/ Mark Frauenfelder / 4 pm Mon, Aug 12 2013
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  • What 7 million skulls look like - the Paris Catacombs

    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.

    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

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