On the occasion of the project to rebuild the spire of the basilica of Saint-Denis, a preventive archaeological excavation, prescribed by the DRAC Île-de-France, resulted in the release of some sixty plaster sarcophagi, mainly from the Merovingian era at the foot of the building.


This operation is carried out jointly and in an unprecedented way by three public operators: the Archaeological Heritage Office of the Department of the Seine-Saint-Denis, the Archaeology Unit of the city of Saint-Denis and the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap).

nearly 200 graves excavated

Archaeologists are currently working inside and outside the basilica. They display a very dense funeral occupation (nearly 200 burials are excavated), from the end of the fifth century with Merovingian and Carolingian remains, for some predating the construction of the building. The burials lasted until the end of medieval times. The research makes it possible to follow the evolution of the architectural ensemble, over nearly a millennium, to understand the implantation of the various cemeteries and to characterize the population.

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© Emmanuelle Jacquot / Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis

the funeral spaces

Some sixty plaster sarcophagi, mainly from the Merovingian period (5th-7th centuries) and in an exceptional state of conservation, are now clear (their final number could approach the hundred). The Merovingian sarcophagi are organized in successive rows and a funeral gallery could be highlighted. The plaster vats have many moulded decorations on the walls. These graves are arranged in sectors. Sometimes the deceased present metallic remains from clothing. This distribution and these characteristics certainly reveal social distinctions and the presence of an aristocracy and a monastic population.


© Emmanuelle Jacquot / Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis

The later burials (from the 8th to the 14th century) did not benefit from as many facilities. Usually wrapped in funerary sheets, without clothes, the bodies are deposited in small burial pits. Sometimes wooden formwork or masonry tombs have been installed. One sees in this phase the appearance around the eleventh century of the first burial platforms, these funerary plates typical of the Middle Ages that cover the tomb at ground level.


© Emmanuelle Jacquot / Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis

The basilica, which became a royal necropolis from the origins of French royalty

Built on the site of a cemetery, burial place of Saint Denis, missionary bishop, martyred around 250, the basilica became a royal necropolis from the origins of French royalty since Queen Arégonde, bru de Clovis Ier, as the graves of 43 kings, 32 queens and 10 servants of the monarchy, from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII.


© Emmanuelle Jacquot / Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis

Abbé Suger made profound changes in the 12th century, including the western massif and the bedside, making this architectural masterpiece a major work of Gothic art. It was completed in the 13th century during the reign of Saint Louis. The basilica was a state property and was listed as a historic monument in 1862. It was elevated in 1966 to the rank of cathedral.


© Emmanuelle Jacquot / Département de la Seine-Saint-Denis

The origins of the cathedral basilica

The Carolingian built complex (8th – 10th centuries) remains to be interpreted. Poorly preserved, it is intersected and sometimes covered by the construction, dating from 1137 to 1140, of the western massif commissioned by Abbé Suger.


© Emmanuelle Collado, INRAP

This work revolutionizes the history of architecture: it is the first step towards the birth of the Gothic style which clearly appears in its bedside built between 1140 and 1144. The excavation now finely apprehends this construction site: the remains cleared, consisting of levels of the stone-cutting waste, holes of posts of scaffolding, trenches of foundations and architectural ramparts, echoes to the organization of the masonries, the marks of the workers, the boulins of scaffolding and the traces of recoveries visible in the elevations.

  • Regional Directorate for Cultural Affairs of Île-de-France
  • Scientific control Service régional de l'archéologie (Drac Île-de-France)
  • Archaeological Research Archaeological Heritage Office of the Seine-Saint-Denis Department, Archaeology Unit of the City of Saint-Denis, Inrap
  • Archaeological Research Manager (RRA) Ivan Lafarge, Seine-Saint-Denis
  • Sector Manager, RRA Assistant Cyrille Le Forestier, Inrap

Header image © Emmanuelle Collado, INRAP