Strong archaeological potential

Current investigations at Saint-Denis began in 1973 at the foot of the basilica1, following the earthworks connected with the extension of line 13 of the metro system. It continued with a series of sondages aimed at evaluating the archaeological potential of the neighborhood located to the north of the abbey church. These preliminary investigations led to a vast campaign of rescue archaeology, led by Olivier Meyer, focused on a ZAC (mixed development zone) of more than thirteen hectares. Archaeological interventions were limited by the constraints of the construction site, and the scope of the excavations was not always based on the specific historical issues of the site. Nevertheless, for fifteen years-between 1977 and 1992-a large urban archaeological research program was carried out, with funding provided jointly by the town and French Ministry of Culture. The data gathered can be considered a representative sample, because they come from a densely occupied area whose surface area corresponds to approximately one-eighth of the medieval town.

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A regional archaeological network

In order to place this research in a long-term framework, in 1982 the town of Saint-Denis created the Archaeological Unit, thus allowing investigations to be carried out in other areas of the town. Since 1995, research has focused on the 1,200 hectares that constitute the commune's territory. About ten operations are carried out each year, several led by or in collaboration with the INRAP. Thus, from 1973 to 2006, 160 rescue archaeology1 operations were performed, including 45 instances of worksite monitoring, 82 sondages and diagnostics and 33 excavations. Thanks to this expansion of the research zone, 13% of the surface of medieval Saint-Denis has been sampled, including operations in the very heart of the town­-that is, the basilica and the site of the abbey. Outside the medieval town, on La Plaine in particular, the number of excavations has increased, due to the expanding number of development projects. They have furnished new data on the paleo-environnement and the earliest inhabitants of the site, but also on the industrial period.

Open-air excavation abutting the Trois-Patrons church, 1982.

© UASD/ O. Meyer.

The "future of the urban past"

Over the years, the archaeological coverage of the community has been completed; this constitutes a crucial scientific tool for the archaeological management of urban planning documentation, which is carried out in close collaboration with the Regional Archaeology Office.

This "community-level archeology", in direct relation with the territory, is seen by policy-makers as part of the process of creating the Saint-Denis of tomorrow. Operations such as the requalification of the town center are based on archaeological studies that reveal the ancient structure of the urban fabric, bring traces of past activities back to life, and allow a vanished town to reappear, refreshing the memory of the place and of its inhabitants.