An ancient necropolis on rue Soussillon in Reims (Marne)

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View of the Rue Soussillon excavation in Reims. Inrap
View of the Rue Soussillon excavation in Reims. Inrap
An Inrap team has excavated an ancient necropolis on a 1,200 m² plot on rue Soussillon in Reims. For the first time, burials from the Gallo-Roman agglomeration have been excavated, preserved from looting by antiquarians and scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and from destruction during the Great War.

Durocortorum (Reims) capital of Belgian Gaul

Ancient Durocortorum was the capital of the province of Gaule Belgique and one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. The city covered an area of 600 hectares and was surrounded by a powerful city wall. It was in the second half of the 19th century, during work to extend Reims, that the contours of this "Augustan" enclosure were revealed, along with the extra-mural necropolises located along the seven main access routes (towards Boulogne, Soissons, Paris, Lyon, Trier, Cologne and Bavay). In 22 years of research, 5,000 tombs were explored and added to the museum’s collections.

Reconstituting archaeological knowledge shattered by the war

The First World War destroyed the museum and much of its collections and documentation. Aside from knowledge of the topography of the burial spaces, very little remains of the excavations of these ancient necropolises. The route of the "great enclosure" has been little explored by archaeologists, and presents areas of uncertainty that each discovery completes. In this context, the discovery of an intact portion of the necropolis in rue Soussillon is an exceptional find for archaeologists in the city of Rimini.

The necropolis

The 1,200 m² excavated on rue Soussillon represent only a portion of a vast ancient necropolis that extended far beyond the right-of-way, on an adjoining plot of land that had already been subdivided, as well as on the other side of the street on a large plot of land partially explored in 1965. On a small alluvial chalk mound, the burial remains consist of around twenty nailed coffin burials and a few cremations. They are surrounded by wide ditches that enabled the Romans to drain rising groundwater from this wetland area into the nearby Vesle River. The high density of graves in this part of the town is particularly interesting, as it was long considered a marshy area, unsuitable for any settlement. Radiocarbon dating of bones reveals a fairly long period of funerary occupation, spanning the whole of antiquity.

A stone sarcophagus

Within this small complex, the presence of a monumental limestone sarcophagus (1 m high, 1.65 m long and 0.80 m wide) raises questions about the status of the deceased. The lid and tub are carved from a coarse-grained limestone, perhaps derived from blocks of large-scale reused stonework. They are held together by eight lead-sealed iron lugs (two on each of the four sides). The two blocks, still sealed, were X-rayed by customs using a truck scanner. Once the absence of a lead container had been established, the interior of the tank was scanned using an endoscopic camera. This revealed a skeleton and funerary furniture.

Once the iron clasps had been cut, a hoist was used to separate the two parts of the sarcophagus. It contains the remains of a woman, surrounded by four oil lamps, two glass vessels possibly containing perfumed oils, a small mirror (near the head), an amber ring and a comb. Some of this material indicates that the burial took place in the 2ndcentury AD. Sediment samples taken from the bones and the bottom of the vat will be used to determine whether plant remains or body treatment products were present. In addition, the Inrap team in Reims is building up a genetic database on ancient funerary ensembles in Reims as part of a research project. DNA taken from a skeletal tooth will be compared with 80 samples to determine whether this woman belonged to a local or more distant elite.

Development: SCCV Soussillon (Migneaux Immobilier)

Scientific supervision: Service régional de l’archéologie (Drac Grand Est)

Archaeological research: Inrap

Scientific manager: émilie Jouhet, Inrap