Chapelle Saint-Aignan, Paris
This is not about Horizon Development or about economics, business development, market intelligence or Horizon's Market Sniper program, it's a personal account. It happened way before Horizon Development was even a possibility. It's intimate history. The story of a young boy's amazing discovery and how is somehow shaped him for the decades that follow...
Aside from finding one's true love, the birth of children, the love of those children and some serious professional marksmanship's achievements, one may find some of those very unique moments when you feel that you were not born to this life without a purpose. This is one of those moments that I am sharing with you now:
When: I was a 12 year-old young Indiana Jones
Where: Ile de la Cite, Paris
What: I was the person to make resurface the existence of a long-gone-thought archaeological treasure of medieval Paris.
Primary Situation: I had Tuesdays off from school and Paris museums were free and my parents where Ok if i traveled alone in the metro (I know, probably they would not nowadays...). I had a small list book of museums and decided to visit all of them. Sometimes friends from school would join me.
Turning point: I visited a small museum that does not exist anymore: Musee Notre-Dame. I noticed many old paintings of beautiful small churches and old pictures of medieval streets with names that I was not familiar with...So I went to the lady and asked her about it: The told me that Ile de la Cite was a medieval town with many streets and 24 churches...until Napoleon III and Hausmann decided other wise in the mid 19th cent. Today the narrow streets medieval quarter was replaced by large administrative buildings and only 2 churches survived the massacre: Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle. But the lady indicated to me also that there is still a small part of the Ile de la Cite that has some old houses (North of Notre-Dame), some of them possibly medieval.
Next: I used some of those Tuesday afternoons to stay at teh school library and use this wonderful book called the Dictionary of historical streets in Paris and focused on streets i that part of the city. I quickly discovered that one of the 22 supposedly destroyed medieval churches was still existing, but it was now a non-accessible private property (that's the part that is shown in the video, which was bought in 1998 by the Paris Diocese and is still not accessible :-) At that time in Paris, buildings did not have door codes and the historical center was most ran-down. I was determined to enter that remaining jewel. I went there every Tuesday afternoon, interviewed people living there to see when the owner might be there. The owner was not from Paris. I climbed walls, went underground in dirt-filled basements to see even if I could spot some outside stones. See aside from being a true survivor, there are singular things about this chapel: (a) One of its walls is the roman wall that circled the island and defended Paris against the barbarians in the 5th century and again against the vikings in the 9th century. (b) Another thing is that the most famous Virgin Mary statue in Gothic France comes from that Chapel. Today it's in Notre-Dame (well it sadly was and hopefully will be again soon). Last, (c) this is the place where supposedly both St Bernard (father of both the Cistercian and Templar orders) Medieval Romeo and Juliet, Aloise and Abelard would met and pray together...enough to sustain the curiosity of a young treasure hunter like me...
What historical records said: The records were clear: During the revolution, the chapel was confiscated and sold. It was split in two. The most eastern part was destroyed and housing were built. The western part (the one on the video) was a wine shop storage place, then was used in different storage fashions until this private collector guy not living in Paris acquired it in the late 1960s.
The discovery: I kept going and trying...without much success. Then I mapped each walls I could scout during my visits and made a hand made map of my recon operations. I saw that logically some of the walls should be accessible from the other side. I was specifically determined to see as much as I could of the Roman defensive wall. So one day, despite the signs that were warning about danger for the walls to crumble, I decided to venture in the underground part on one of the sides. I took a friend of mine along with torch lights and we started to dig out big blocks of stone that were obstructing some kind of stairs going down. We were certainly not permitted to do so, neither by our parents, nor by the concierge still living in the inhabited part of that building. So we moved in a stealth mode... But it was hard, dangerous and time consuming...We had to stop, go home and returned the following Tuesday... Then, once the main blocks were removed on the side, we started to descend those stairs, hoping at some point to get a glimpse at the Roman wall...We found it...But that wall was pierced by a entrance portal itself decorated by Romanesque sculptures of monk heads (in the very Cluny style of 12th century sculpture) and a half broken tympans where only the crossed legs of Christ or another holy figures could be deciphered (strange, I do not see any modern record of this part, which I checked a few years ago is still there). The following week, we went back... and then proceeded to access the area below the romanesque gate. The place was like a dark haunted place, half ran-down, a hiding place for homeless, stray dogs & cats (some dead), the ground was dirt, mixed with garbage and excrement, but the Roman wall was magnificent in there and a large stoup (benitier) was sculpted in it. Probably at an early medieval time (again, there are no definitive academic conclusions to this day about its origin and dating) and most surprisingly that room contained a half circled basement that just fit perfectly the map of the part of the chapel that supposedly was destroyed during the French revolution. We went back a few times, found bones and artifacts half buried that we could not identified.
The Legacy: Then, I went to the Commission Historique du Vieux Paris, at the Rotonde de la Villette and told them my stories. They did not take me very seriously over there. After all I was just 12 and without any archaeological training. But then I showed them some pictures I took of the gate, the monks' heads, the roman wall with the stoup, the semi-circular shape of the basement (My brother had received a polaroid camera for his birthday). They did not know what to say. They checked the records immediately and said that there is nothing there on records...but they were embarrassed because of the pictures... They never contacted me again... but a little over a year later, I walked by and the access to the basement was now forbidden... A number of statues and other artifacts were lined up in the courtyard. I trespassed and went there anyway... archaeological excavations were happening (even though there was nobody there that day)...and serious ones...I went back to the Commission to ask about it. They showed me the file and pictures of what they found during the excavations...impressive...The big boss was there that day (Michel Fleury) and I had the chance to speak to him. He thanked me for the finding and communicating to the Paris archaeologists, promised to invite me to the next exhibit where the Chapel's archaeological findings will be shown (I am still waiting for the invitation, Mr. Fleury passed away over 10 years ago...they probably stored it the way they stored the Arch of the Covenant at the end of Indiana Jones 1) and invited me to visit and take part of the ongoing excavations in front of Notre-Dame, under the "parvis". It was the last year those were happening and got a chance to excavate the site of St Etienne, 6th century Merovingian cathedral destroyed in the 12th century and partly covered today by Notre-Dame. Later on I had the chance to participate to mostly early medieval excavations in Paris (Montmartre Cimetiere St Pierre, Saint-Denis, St Marcel, etc.) and explore the secret underground tunnels below the Refectoire at Ecole de Medecine.
Conclusion: 40 years later, this episode remains one of the highlights of my life, and I encourage young people to get away from their computer and explore their heritage, talk to people and try to make a difference. Aside from archaeology, so many things can be done in the field of nature and the environment.