We’ve been staying in Poitiers for the past week, and this morning Bonnie Effros took us on a tour of the Merovingian (and modern) cemetery at Civaux.
It’s an incredible place, and I’m mostly going to let the pictures speak for themselves. But in brief, something like 15,000 stone sarcophagi ¹ were buried in this cemetery in the early middle ages. If you’re familiar with early medieval burial practices, you’ll know how unusual this is: most Merovingian dead were buried directly in the soil, with stone sarcophagi reserved for special – and usually wealthy – persons. Yet here, thousands of people were buried in stone, and it’s quite remarkable.
Over the years, this cemetery has received a lot of attention. Early modern farmers harvested the coffins to recycle into feed and water troughs. I’m sure more than a few ended up in the walls of nearby buildings. But in the nineteenth century, as members of the new middle class started to dig up their local history and archaeology, the remaining coffins were uncovered and their lids transformed into the most incredible cemetery wall I’ve ever seen:
The cemetery’s still used, and early medieval and modern dead now share the space with living mourners. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.
The story’s not complete without mentioning the other deadly attractions of Civaux, which include a reptilian zoo called ‘Crocodile Place,’ and this looming nuclear behemoth:
1 Sarcophagus means ‘flesh eater’ in Greek, and true to their name I didn’t see any bones in the open coffins. Probably, the nineteenth-century antiquarians who tidied up the site carted away all of the ancient dead. Or maybe the flesh eaters of Civaux did their job all too well, consuming all traves of the bodies they were fed. I played it safe and kept my mortal fingers away from the grim containers.