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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

  Gallo-Roman Remains beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral

          1965 excavations directed by M. Fleury in front of Notre-Dame encountered Gallo-Roman and Merovingian foundations 8-10 m below today’s street level. Findings are now displayed in situ in the 118 m-long Archaeological Crypt beneath the Parvis or park facing the cathedral. Displays on ancient Lutetia include bulwarks of a 3rd-4th century AD defensive wall around the Île de la Cité (fig.1), and 2nd-3rd century Roman-era house foundations with a hypocaust heating system.

          Additional Roman-era artifacts recovered under the choir of Notre-Dame are now displayed at the Musée national du Moyen Âge at the Hôtel de Cluny, amid original vaults of the Roman bath frigidarium. Most notable (aside from the impressive baths themselves) is the Pilier des Nautes, a four-sided altar dedicated to

[Fig.1: Map showing segments of the 3rd-4th century Roman rampart around the Île de la Cité, discovered by archaeological excavations (after Crypte Archéologique)].

Jupiter and a collection of other Roman and Gallic deities, erected by a corporation of Parisi river merchants and sailors (nautae Parisiaci). Five of the eight original carved stones of the Pilier des nautes were discovered under Notre-Dame on March 16, 1711, during excavations commissioned by Louis XIV to create an altar for the archbishops of France. The Pilier or column consists of four carved blocks of two superimposed stones each: the Block of Jupiter, the Block of Eight Divinities, the Block of Four Divinities, and the Block of Dedication (Caillet 1985). While the Block of Jupiter, restored in 1954, is complete, only the upper half remains of the three other blocks.

          This complex monument originally lay in a Roman shrine or temple to Jupiter, at the same site where Notre-Dame was eventually built. The portrayal of both Roman and Gallic deities on the monument, furthermore, indicates that a form of religious syncretism existed in Paris by the early 1st century AD. A Latin inscription located on the Block of Dedication dates the monument to the reign of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37). While some ambiguities surround the abbreviated text of the inscription, one widely accepted reading is: “under the reign of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, sailors of the Parisi region have erected, at their own expense, this monument to Jupiter best and highest.” Two young sailors with shield and spear are shown on one side of the Block of Dedication.

          Besides Jupiter, Roman gods portrayed on the Pilier des Nautes include Castor, Pollux, Vulcan, Mars, and an unknown goddess, possibly Vesta. Gallic deities include the bull-like Tarvos Trigaranus, shown with three cranes on his back (fig.2); the horned nature god Cernunnos, sometimes associated with stags, and Smertrios and Esus, two bearded Celtic gods each shown chopping a tree with an axe, possibly linking them with Vulcan.  

          While the exact arrangement of the stones in the pillar remains uncertain, one widely accepted hypothesis by J.-J. Hatt (1960s) has the Block of Eight Divinities (46 x 91 x 96 cm) placed at the bottom due to its larger dimensions. The relatively small size of the letters on the Block of Dedication, meanwhile, suggests that this stone was no higher than the second level, with the Block of Jupiter rested on the third level above the Latin dedication. At top was the Block of Four Divinities, including the Gallic deities Cernunnos and Smertrios. According to Hatt, the column could have been between 5-6 meters high. While Hatt also postulated that the monument was originally located at the forum of Lutetia at the top of Mount Saint Geneviève, recent excavations have demonstrated that the forum actually dates after the erection of the Pilier des Nautes.

[ Fig.2 Drawing of the relief of the Celtic diety Tarvos Trigaranus with three cranes (after Crypte Archéologique)].

          More Gallo-Roman materials from the Paris area may be seen at the Musée Carnavalet, the Musée du Louvre, the Musée du Cabinet des Medailles, and the Musée des antiquitiés nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which contains Roman materials from throughout France.  


Caillet, J.P. 1985. L’antiquité classique, le haut moyen âge et Byzance au Musée de Cluny. Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux.

Huchard, V. (ed) Archéologica. 2003. “Le Pilier des Nautes Retrouvé. Histoire d’une Métamorphose.” Dijon, France. Éditions Faton S.A.

The above text appears on page 23 of Ancient and Medieval Paris: A Background to the Gothic era in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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