In a small building on a busy street in Paris, France, there is a long, winding staircase. It leads deep underground to a massive network of tunnels—all packed with human bones. Welcome to the Paris Catacombs. “When you descend into the Catacombs, you are enveloped in silence,” says Erin-Marie Legacey, a historian from Texas Tech University. To enter, you must pass through a doorway engraved with the warning “Stop! This is the empire of death!”
These dark, cramped corridors were once medieval quarries from which stone was mined. They sat empty for centuries, until the late 1700s. Around that time, Paris was facing a problem: The city’s ancient cemeteries were overflowing with bodies. In 1780, the government began shutting down and emptying graveyards across the city. Because the graves were so old, the bodies they contained had decomposed. All that remained were bones, which don’t easily break down over time. The government decided to move the bones into the quarries beneath Paris. This transformed the tunnels into underground burial chambers—also known as catacombs.
Soon the bones of around 6 million people had been carted underground and left in disorderly heaps. Then, in 1809, city engineers decided to start organizing the bones into neat stacks and arranging the skulls into intricate patterns like hearts and circles.
Today people can visit the Paris Catacombs and see the bone-lined tunnels for themselves. “When I go into the Catacombs, I’m awestruck by the feeling of being surrounded by the past,” says Legacey. “You don’t usually get to come face-to-face with the remains of people who lived hundreds of years ago.”