Sunday, 4 January 2015

Marseilles 1720: burying the dead

At its height, in September 1720, the Marseilles plague claimed a thousand lives a day. According to Michel Signoli's statistics, 242 localities were affected, with the final verifiable death toll 119,811 out of a population of 394,369 before the epidemic. When the crypts of the churches were filled, huge pits were dug to receive the bodies. Most remain under the concrete and paving of the modern city, but in the last twenty years some sites have been uncovered and investigated.

Excavations in the Couvent de l'Observance (rue Leca)

In August-September 1994 the systematic excavation, led by Michel Signoli, took place of a communal grave in the former gardens of the Couvent de l'Observance which had functioned as a quarantine hospital. For the first time plague victims from 1720 were the subject of modern anthropological  and medical research. (Laboratoire Adaptabilité humaine: biologie et culture, UMR CNRS, Marseilles). The remains of 216 skeletons were identified. As well as written reports, the findings featured in a prize-winning documentary by the anthropological filmmaker Laurent Maget.
[Autour de la peste, Marseille 1720, 1722]

Here is a summary of some of the findings:
  • The isolation of the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis in surviving dental pulp confirmed that these were indeed victims of bubonic plague.
  • Certain characteristics of the site suggested an association with the late recurrence of plague in May-August 1722.  The burial pit, dug near the eastern wall of the city, was of huge proportions - sufficient for 10,000 bodies - but was largely empty. The existence of three zones suggested a rapid transition from renewed emergency to the end of the epidemic: in the east a high density of bodies was piled up in groups, consistent with having been unloaded from carts. The middle area was less dense, occupied by individual burials, sometimes children in association with adults. Finally in the west end there were only a few bodies. There had been time for most bodies to be placed in shrouds and systematically covered with quicklime.

    Documentary confirmation for the chronology is provided by a note dated 24 May 1722 from the Hôpital de l'Observance authorising a burial in the fosse.  A fragmentary list of individuals hospitalised, with names, gender and ages also survives.
Plan of the distribution of skeletons within the excavated ditch 
  • The site yielded relatively few finds, but one individual had a small head of Christ, hollowed to form a container - presumably for a prophylactic potion of some sort - and a cross, identical to examples associated with the plague in Copenhagen. 

  • Other bodies give evidence of current medical practice. Two in central zone had had a pin inserted under their big toenail, presumably to check that they were insensible and truly dead. In one case  an autopsy was  carried out - the top of the skull is sawn off - showing how doctors struggled to understand  the nature of the plague and its contagion [29:30].

Excavations at Martigues (1994 and 2008)

Other digs, all under the heading of "rescue archaeology", have subsequently added more data.  Two sites have been found at Martigues to the north-west of Marseilles, where 2,150 deaths were recorded in 1720-2. At Délos (39 victims, excavated in Spring 1994) three trenches were uncovered, lined with lime; the random position of the skeletons and the presence of clothing suggested that the bodies had been tipped in rapidly at the height of the epidemic. In a study published in 2002 Olivier Dutour, Michel Signoli  and their team used anthropological data from Marseilles, Délos and earlier sites, together with extensive documentary evidence, to map the demographic characteristics of plague victims.  Their conclusion was simply that the dead mirrored the general pattern of the population; as we suspected all along, the plague singled out no-one and spared no-one. 

A further excavation at Martigues near the convent which served as the main hospital ("Site Capucins de Ferrières") in 2002 uncovered a further 208 skeletons in five trenches in conditions very similar to the Délos site.

Martigues excavation, 2002 (Wikimedia)

Cathedral Square Marseilles (2008) 

Finally in Marseilles itself, a project to create a new cathedral precinct in 2008 ("l'espanade de la Major") brought to light, among many earlier archaeological remains, a second plague pit. 107 skeletons were recovered,  with remnants of clothing (buckles and buttons) and also personal possessions - coins, medallions, jewellery - suggesting, as is consistent with the central location, that these victims were buried hurriedly the height of the epidemic in September 1720. There are not many details available on the internet but the INRAP website has a few pictures:


Laurent Maget  Autour de la peste, Marseille 1720, 1722 [Produced 2005, uploaded to Youtube  March 2014]
Transcript :

Michel Signoli and Olivier Dutour "Le charnier du Couvent de l'Observance (1722) [1997 excavation report]

Michel Signoli , Olivier Dutour, Isabelle Séguy, J.-N Biraben ,  "Paleodemography and historical demography in the context of an epidemic: plague in Provence in the eighteenth century. In: Population, 2002 57(6) p. 829-854.

Stéfan Tzortzis, "Les tranchées des Capucins de Ferrières (Martigues, Bouches-du-Rhône, France). Un charnier de l’épidémie de peste de 1720 à 1722 en Provence" Comptes 
 Pale 2009 8(8), p.749-760  [Summary only freely available]

"Marseille: Les charniers de la peste de 1720" [INRAP website. Contains preliminary information about the excavations outside the cathedral]

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