How did we find all this? (sampling strategies)

stacked skulls

This is a close-up shot of the skulls stacked in the Paris Catacombs.

By the seventeenth century, the people of Paris realized that their cemeteries were overflowing, graves were becoming overstuffed, and sometimes graves were even being accidentally uncovered when searching for an untouched plot of land to bury the dead.  It was at this point that the Catacombs were built.  Paris had tunnels already built under the city that were centuries old, from back when limestone quarries were being mined.  Over six million Parisians have now found their final resting place in the Catacombs.

During construction of the Catacombs, walls were constructed, some depicting warnings of danger, in order to mark which areas of the site were safe for human exploration.  The bones, creating a mausoleum, form a sort of structure for the tunnels, guiding visitors and explorers alike through the depths of the underground maze.  The different rooms built into the site seem “themed” to many archaeologists today. Some rooms contain only bones with visible deformities, for instance, though experts are unsure of this significance.

Though many tunnels have been uncovered, there is still plenty of the Catacombs that is still undiscovered today.  The Paris Catacombs have become a tourist attraction for those visiting the City of Lights, but archaeologists are still working in order to uncover as much of this mysterious site as possible.  Some types of sampling strategies that would be helpful in this project are test pits, stratified random sampling, sediment analysis, and human bone analysis.

An example of the hallways built into the Catacombs.

An example of the hallways and rooms built into the Catacombs.

Test pits are an excellent starting point for many excavations.  A test pit is a small excavation, usually dug by hand, that is methodical in that it is uncovered layer-by-layer and everything found is recorded.  Since this is a small excavation technique, a series of test pits would be the most beneficial way to use this sampling strategy in the Catacombs.  By doing this in the unexplored portions of the Catacombs, archaeologists could find additional human remains that have yet to be uncovered as well as artifacts that may have been buried with the dead, which could give information on the lives of the skeletons found in the Catacombs.  Stratified random sampling is a process which includes analysis of different layers, like in test pits.  In stratified random sampling, the area is divided up into “strata,” or layers, and a random sample to study is drawn from each layer.

Sediment analysis of the Catacombs could be useful to gain insight on the environmental conditions of the past and how humans impacted the environment of this area.  Understanding what materials make up the soil and landscape of the area is also important, as the human remains buried here were buried in the soil before the Catacombs were fully built and structured.  Particularly as new areas of the Catacombs are explored, it is important to know what materials are in and around the bones.

Human bone analysis is perhaps the most useful sampling strategy for a site like the Catacombs.  Also known as “osteology,” it is the analysis of bones and teeth and is used to gain various insights on the lives and past people and their societies.  By conducting human bone analysis, archaeologists can determine information such as biological sex, age at death, cause of death, diseases or other abnormalities suffered during life, bone stress, trauma such as broken bones, and burial type.  After finding out this information about the people buried in the Catacombs, archaeologists can determine information on the skeletal population as a whole to deepen our knowledge of the historical Parisian people.  Information like disease or pathology trends could be determined, and we can see which skeletal abnormalities were popular at the time.