A preventive archaeological excavation carried out by INRAP at the city of Mâcon (in east-central France) revealed the remains of a necropolis dated from circa 1st century AD. The project was carried out ahead of an underground district heating network proposal that is expected to be installed by the Mâcon Energie Service. Given the moniker of Cordiers’ Necropolis, the site was found to have a range of ancient historical specimens, including a monumental stone sarcophagus, ceramic fragments, and funerary urns.
Now in terms of history, Mâcon possibly originates from a Gaulish settlement that was established as an oppidum (fortified town) and a river port by the Aedui Celts. And even after Gaul was conquered by the Romans, the settlement, then known as Matisco, continued to thrive. In fact, the Gallo-Roman town commercially flourished during the Roman Empire era – as is evidenced by the Mâcon treasure, a large Roman hoard that was discovered way back in 1764. And as required by ancient Roman law, the aforementioned necropolis, while macabrely mirroring the growth of the city, lay outside the official perimeters of the urban area.
The discoveries inside the necropolis (used from circa 1st century till 6th century AD) have shed light into the funerary practices and meals that were prevalent in the Gallo-Roman society of the period. According to Daniel Barthélémy, an archaeologist from Mâcon who took part in the excavation project –
In the 30 centimeters studied, we have the whole range of funeral practices of the Mâcon necropolis. From the end of the second century were find funeral pyre areas where corpses were cremated before the bones were collected and deposited in urns. Refuse pits were found where the remains of the pyres, including broken ceramics, were disposed of. This is a time of sharing between the gods, the deceased and the living. These are gestures that accompany the funeral and are intended to pacify the soul of the deceased: burning the things that were used for the funeral meal.
He further added –
Then we have the burials that will take the place of the cremations. Little is known about these practices because there are few objects in the graves, sometimes because of looting. We do not yet know when this new funeral practice completely replaced the old one when the ancient necropolis of Mâcon ceased to function in favor of Christian cemeteries.
According to the postures of the skeletons, the deceased were mostly buried, dressed, in stone or wooden coffins. Carbon-14 dating of the bones will help us determine if we are dealing with Merovingian period tombs. We are perhaps looking at evidence for the presence of the first Christians in the ancient city of Mâcon, the early Christians.
The ‘multifarious’ pattern of funerary rites found inside the Cordiers’ Necropolis is rather reflected by the past discoveries made at this particular area by the Gambetta Street. They include traces of cremations from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD (corresponding to the Roman Empire era), the sarcophagus of a Frankish warrior from the early 6th century, and other centuries-old stone sarcophagi (found during the 2011 excavations).
Images © Céline Capdeville, Inrap, 2018