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January 20, 2011 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Paris Catacombs. National Geographic's Neil Shea goes underground in Paris. Photography by Stephen Alvarez.
posted by The Mouthchew (23 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fact: When you leave the official catacomb tour there is a dude there to make sure you haven't smuggled away any skulls with you.
posted by The Whelk at 7:27 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I never saw the skull dude when I left the official catacombs.

I will say, however, that the official catacombs are kind of a pain in the ass to find...And they are surprisingly deep! It seems like that little tiny spiral staircase just keeps going and going and going and going...

One of the neatest sights I have seen, though, hands down. Thanks for the great photos!
posted by kaseijin at 7:35 AM on January 20, 2011


Fact: When you leave the official catacomb tour there is a dude there to make sure you haven't smuggled away any skulls with you.

Very true. Still, it is hard to leave without traces of bone dust on your camera. It really is an amazing place to visit.
posted by cosmac at 7:36 AM on January 20, 2011


Puts all other memento mori to shame.
posted by aychedee at 7:38 AM on January 20, 2011



Fact: When you leave the official catacomb tour there is a dude there to make sure you haven't smuggled away any skulls with you.


Not when I was there a couple months ago. There was nothing like a search.
I got some great photos though, despite the "No Cameras or Tripods" rule.

Someone explain the tripods bit to me.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:49 AM on January 20, 2011


Not when I was there a couple months ago. There was nothing like a search.

So maybe I just ...assumed he was working there and he's secretly hording skulls?
posted by The Whelk at 7:51 AM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


For anyone that's interested, here's one of a few of the shots that worked out well, on my crappy point and click without a flash.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:52 AM on January 20, 2011


The catacombs started to squick me out after a while and I wanted to leave but you can only turn around or go to the end, no exiting half way through that I could tell. It was damp and bone juice* dripped from the ceiling. It was amazing but a lot of bones goes a long way.

bone juice being my word for the water that dripped through the bones from the ceiling
posted by shoesietart at 8:05 AM on January 20, 2011


Pillars of Paris
City inspector Xavier Duthil checks a crude limestone pillar built by quarrymen in the early 1800s. If it were to fail today, more than a ceiling might collapse.
Holy civil engineering nightmare batman!

Get down there with some steel poles stat, people...
posted by odinsdream at 8:08 AM on January 20, 2011


I got some great photos though, despite the "No Cameras or Tripods" rule.

Huh. We were allowed to take our cameras down. The rule for us was "no flash photography".

Between that and reports of a catacomb exit inspector, I am getting a picture of a rule set that changes capriciously. I guess that's typical.
posted by kaseijin at 9:47 AM on January 20, 2011


I very rarely think "I'd like to go to Paris" (possibly because of a bad experience in which I learned the meaning of the term "French postcards" on the Metro at age 15 or so), but I'm rethinking it after reading the first page of this article.
posted by immlass at 9:47 AM on January 20, 2011


Er wait, I meant "no flash or tripods." You were allowed cameras.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:50 AM on January 20, 2011


Fact: When you leave the official catacomb tour there is a dude there to make sure you haven't smuggled away any skulls with you.

There was no such dude when I was there, but that was many years ago when I was just a kid (the catacombs are especially awesome when you're a kid.) I remember coming out on some random sidewalk and my dad and I had no idea where we were, but there was a nice restaurant right there so we had a bite to eat while we got our bearings.
posted by homunculus at 9:56 AM on January 20, 2011


Looks like the Deus Ex level wasn't that far off the mark.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:27 AM on January 20, 2011


There is a not-great movie set in the catacombs, co-starring P!nk. I don't think it was actually filmed down there, but it's awesomely atmospheric. Why would people find ossuaries frightening?
posted by orrnyereg at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2011


I am getting a picture of a rule set that changes capriciously - Welcome to France, here is your complimentary cigarette and scowl. If you wear it upside down, it doubles as a sneer!

As for being squicked out - I had little feelings of squickiness, but they were overrun by wonder that
-the work had been done in a time of need, and done respectfully, orderlyly(?), and artistically
-each and every one of those skulls was a person who loved, talked, did math, ...

I also had a bitch of a time finding the entrance the first time. And it was closed like the first 5 times I went to Paris. Now I walk by every day and see the hour-long line.
posted by whatzit at 12:06 PM on January 20, 2011


Why would people find ossuaries frightening?

Interesting question.

This is explored a bit in Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, which I don't have handy for physical reference right now, but I could sum up the relevant part.

Certain areas of the human brain are configured to classify parts of the world as agents versus static objects. This is useful for hunting and whatnot since it doesn't make a lot of sense to hunt rocks, but to get to that point you have to differentiate active agents from rocks to begin with.

This identification is arrived at a couple of ways. Objects get extra points to push them up to agents by doing things like moving on their own (so leaves blowing in the wind don't count), or exhibiting goal-oriented behaviour. Things get extra points if they trip the brain's face-detection, etc.

All this to say what's perfectly obvious: We know when we interact with other humans that they're active, independent agents in the world.

This goes a little wrong with death, though, since the identification as active has already been made, but nothing's connecting correctly anymore. The agent is disturbingly still and not at all goal-oriented. What the fuck's going on! FREAK THE FUCK OUT. (emphasis mine)

Anyway, you should check the book out for this section alone - it's fascinating. I don't do it justice.
posted by odinsdream at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2011


A good radio companion to this from the CBC
posted by Neiltupper at 12:55 PM on January 20, 2011



-the work had been done in a time of need, and done respectfully, orderlyly(?), and artistically


Yes and no.

I mean, it was done respectfully in that they sanctified the space as they dumped all of the bones in by the truck load.

My understanding is that the display we see today was done much later. Initially there was little or no effort to make the place look good, it was done out of pure necessity, for reasons of health and hygiene.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:32 PM on January 20, 2011


They said they were going to check any bags, and there was a sneery, unhappy, gaseous looking (ie French) guy at the exit, checking me out, but didn't check my bag.

An hour wait? Things have changed. I was there November 93, might have been the only person there, absolutely there were not many others. If any. It was cold, wet; maybe that's what kept people away. I know that November is not a time with lots of visitors, knew I was seeing Paris as it is, not as it is when buried in tourists.

Absolutely a highlight of my time in Paris. And that was truly a spectacular trip -- I went for five days, stayed for eighteen, ate every bit of Paris that I could in that time. Inhaled it, or tried to, imbued myself with it, etc and etc An amazing city.

As noted upthread, what this walk through gave me was the knowing in *my* bones that each of those skulls had knowledge of love and hatred and passion and sadness in it, maybe knowledge of baking or banking or a cook or a maid or a ferrier or a warrior or a whore or who knows, they were people -- they thought, just like me, that they would never die, and it appeared to me as I looked at their bones that they were wrong. Maybe I was, too.

And I loved that they were laid out as they are, that the time was taken to do this, almost Mexican in their way of treating death as a celebration, or damn sure not to be afraid of -- skulls laid out as hearts set into those walls of bones, hearts and I don't remember what all else. Very, very cool.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:53 PM on January 20, 2011


NYC underground on Vimeo. Cuz ... bones? pffft.
posted by Twang at 3:04 PM on January 20, 2011


This was (yet another) excellent article by National Geographic. What isn't available at the website is a beautiful 4 page fold out of the catacombs general location and changes over time. Worth buying the magazine for I think.
posted by mdoar at 4:41 PM on January 20, 2011


I'm kinda sad to hear that the Catacombs is so popular now. I've been three or four times, most recently about ten years ago, and there was never any queueing at all. Just a few of us strolling through those astonishing corridors of the dead.

The first time you visit is always a shock, even if you've been told what to expect. So many human remains. All those thousands and thousands of skulls. The way they're sometimes arranged into patterns. And then a stack of femurs, the shape of a cross. And the inscriptions in the walls: "Elle est précieuse au yeux du Seigneur la mort de ses saints." "C'est par la malice du démon que la mort est entrée dans le monde."

Incredible place.
posted by Decani at 5:01 AM on January 21, 2011


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