Mazes of mines and catacombs beneath Paris

The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was swarming with tourists on the first day that Elaine, Heather, and I set out to explore it. The line for entry stretched all the way across the plaza and we could hear the muffled din of the crowds within the sanctuary spilling out through the doors. We made a unanimous decision to avoid the chaos by heading to the quieter sanctuary of the nearby Musée de Monmartre. It’s dedicated to the artists and cabarets that gave the neighborhood its bohemian reputation at the end of the 1800s, and was the last place I though I’d find anything geological. But lo and behold, it had a small exhibit on the gypsum mines that used to be active on the Montmartre Butte, as sketched by the Impressionists.

These mines complicated the construction of the Basilica that we had considered visiting that day. In the 1870s the Parisian government committed to building a huge Catholic monument there as an unmistakable reminder of the power of church and state. Montmartre had been the birthplace of the radical socialist Commune movement that had unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the government in 1871, and the government wanted to remind the neighborhood of who really called the shots. However before the structure could rise above the surface, the foundation required 83 pillars sunk 130 feet deep into the rock layers below the gypsum mines.

I had something of an epiphany (or more accurately, and “oh, duh!” moment) – gypsum is the main ingredient in “Plaster of Paris”! So that’s where it came from! In particular, it came from the green areas on the map below:

Mines of paris translated

Montmartre is clearly visible as the ring-shaped cluster of gypsum mines and the center top of the figure. map translated from French by C. van Stolk. By Plan: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) BnF Notice d’autorité personneDigital copy: ThePromenader – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28798468

 

Most of the pale building stone that makes the City of Light so distinctive actually comes from within its limits! It gave me a sense of the huge scale of mining in the city that most of what we see on the surface came from underneath it. The gypsum was mined extensively beginning in the Middle Ages to create fire-resistant covering for wooden structures. You can see the distinctive cream or yellow-ish limestone in almost all of the buildings in Paris built before the 1770s, from the Saint-Germaine church to the grand mansions between the Marais and the Place des Vosges. The limestone is riddled with little cone and spiral shaped fossils too, if you look carefully.

These quarries have been active since the Romans occupied what they called Lutece, but the city didn’t get its wake-up call until 1777 when a gaping sinkhole swallowed an entire city block near what’s now the Place Denfert-Rochereau. That’s when King Louis XVI banned mining within the city limits. He also commissioned Paris’s first mine inspector, Charles-Axel Guillaumot, to map the warren beneath their feet and shore up the weak places to prevent a repeat of the “Place d’Enfer” disaster. M. Guillaumot earned the nickname “the savior of Paris” and was one of the few royal appointees of that era to survive the guillotine – the revolutionaries considered him too useful.

Around the same time, Parisians realized that the former quarries posed a solution to another pressing problem – unmanageable overcrowding at cemeteries above ground. Between 1785 and 1814 the bones of over 6 million people who had died since the founding of the city were disinterred and moved in nocturnal religious processions into the properly sanctified sections of the tunnels designated as the municipal ossuary or catacomb just outside what was then the southern boundary of the city. The catacombs were opened to the general public for tours in 1810.

119 years afterwards, Elaine, Heather, and I set out to wait in the long line to enter the Municipal Ossuary a.k.a. the Catacombs of Paris. It’s a rare attraction that appeals the Elaine’s love of spooky things, my love of rocks, Heather’s interest in history, and all of our pressing interest in getting out of the 97 degree heat. We just managed to get into the last tour group before the gates closed for the day! Because of the time crunch we had to fly through the geology exhibition in favor of getting to the creepy bits but I took photos of the placards, some of which I have translated below. For photos of the ensuing Super Spooky Aesthetic ™ check out my travelogue post.

The rocks below Paris are younger than the rocks we clambered on in Brittany – they’re from the Eocene era between 56 and 38 million years ago, when the Paris Basin held a shallow sea that left behind characteristic limestones and shell fossils. The sea went through periods when it very nearly dried up, leaving layers of evaporate minerals such as gypsum.

translated paris paleogeography

Image photographed by author at the catacombs, legend translated

North-south tectonic pressures slightly buckled the basin in the time since the rock was formed. This created the Meudon anticline (A-shaped fold) on the southern side of Paris, which is why limestone and gypsum from different ages are mined at similar elevations on either side of the Seine.

translated cross section of paris

Image photographed by author at the Catacombs, and subsequently translated

Left: labeled layers in the limestone, Right: teensy 5mm stalactites!

Paris has a thriving community of “cataphiles” who risk law enforcement action to explore the subterranean side of the city. National Geographic did a great special on them in 2011. Over the years since the quarries were abandoned in the 1950s, they’ve made the flipside of Paris into their playground and undertaken mapping efforts. Here’s an elegant map of the “Great Southern Network”, with notes and annotations. It’s the kind of treasure map that got me into cartography in the first place.

If you’d like to learn more, Dr. Jack Share at one of my favorite blogs “Written in stone, seen through my lens” wrote two fantastic, extremely detailed posts about the geology of Paris – one focusing on the gypsum quarries and the geologic origins of the Paris Basin, and a second one on the mines and catacombs. I highly recommend those posts, and the entire blog!

Postscript:

We did eventually visit the Sacre Coeur Basilica towards the end of our stay in Paris. It turns out that the basilica is quietest directly after services in the evening, and there is a lovely organ postlude. From the inside it’s a wonderfully peculiar building. Sacre Coeur was built between 1875 and 1919 and the stained glass windows weren’t added until after WWII, and so it encompasses huge changes in the French design aesthetic. The architecture is a mix of the stately Neo-classicical style like the Pantheon and the Byzantine revival style, it got a gloss of whimsical Art Nouveau statuary at the turn of the century, and ended up with weird abstract stained glass windows from the post-war period when artists felt that the world was broken beyond repair. The building is made of travertine from the Souppes-sur-Loing quarry, in the Seine-et-Marne department about 100 km south of the basilica. Travertine is an exceedingly hard, fine-grained stone that releases chalky white calcite when it rains. So basically, it’s self-cleaning and is able to stay gleaming without pressure-washing!

English-language resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mines_of_Paris

Paris: From quarry to catacombs

http://catacombes.paris.fr/en/history/geology-and-quarries

http://www.sacre-coeur-montmartre.com/english/history-and-visit/article/architecture

A really excellent post about the mines of Montmartre: http://written-in-stone-seen-through-my-lens.blogspot.com/2014/04/geological-legacies-of-paris-basin-part.html

Another very thorough post from that same author on the rest of Paris’ quarries: http://written-in-stone-seen-through-my-lens.blogspot.com/2014/06/geological-legacies-of-paris-basin-part.html

reddit post hosting an AMAZING map of all the explored catacombs under Paris: https://www.reddit.com/r/MapPorn/comments/b50j1r/detailed_map_of_the_paris_catacombs_in_english/

French-Language resources:

detailed post on mines, mining techniques, and mine inspection in Paris: http://exploration.urban.free.fr/carrieres/index.htm#exploitation

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