“Unprecedented” historical discovery in Dijon: a medieval town hidden beneath the modern city

Archaeological excavations in urban areas often make it possible to rediscover entire sections of local history, particularly in ancient cities like Dijon. Recently, preventive work carried out by the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap), under the direction of Benjamin Saint-Jean Vitus and Clarisse Courderc, uncovered significant remains from the Middle Ages.

These discoveries, made in anticipation of urban development projectsin particular beautification work undertaken by the City on the axis linking the City of Gastronomy and Wine to Rue de la Liberté, reveal unexpected aspects of the medieval town of Saint-Bégnine, thus enriching our understanding of the history of Dijon before the formalization of its enclosure in the 14th century. They are relayed in a press release from Inrap which mentions “unprecedented discoveries. »

The medieval town of Saint-Bégnine in Dijon

Research carried out by the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) in the heart of Dijon has shed light on a hitherto little-known sector of the medieval town, dating back to the 11th century. The excavations, carried out on and around Place Bossuet, revealed the foundations of a craft district of notable importance. The cleared structures, mainly wooden buildings reinforced by mixed elements on masonry flashing, were arranged along a stoned street. Each plot is approximately 3 to 5 m wide.

Its route should therefore facilitate the passage and transport of goods. The soil, often clayey, demonstrates intensive use, characteristic of areas of artisanal activities.

Archaeologists have discovered various interior arrangements, such as fireplaces and reddened work areas. Depending on the development phases, the excavations reveal combinations of different juxtaposed hearths, or on the contrary very large hearths built with stone hearths, or perhaps possible rejects from oven vaults. Series of pits and stake holes complete these installations. They evoke artisanal workshops, such as blacksmithing or pottery.

Outbreak on the surface of reddened clay soil. © Samuel Brassaud, Inrap

These archaeological elements suggest that the town of Saint-Bégnine constituted a vibrant center of economic and artisanal activity. And this, long before being included in the urban enclosure built between the end of the 12th and the middle of the 14th century. The existence of this well-structured and organized area, outside the walls of the main city of the time, reveals the importance of the abbey of Saint-Bénigne.

An abbey, an attractive center of the region

The Saint-Bénigne church in Dijon, founded during late Antiquity, is intrinsically linked to the religious and cultural history of the region. In the 6th century, the site gained notoriety following miracles attributed to the burial of Saint Bénigne, an evangelist of Burgundy, whose tomb was initially located near the Saint-Jean church. These events attracted the attention of the Bishop of Langres, who, after being convinced by a visionary dream, had a new church built on the site to honor Saint Bénigne.

This decision marks the birth of the abbey of Saint-Bénigne, which will become a powerful monastic center. The abbey plays a crucial role in the development of Dijon, attracting economic activities and contributing to the expansion of the city beyond its original walls. Over the centuries, the building was rebuilt and enlarged. It reflects the growing importance of the site until medieval times. So, it stands as one of the main spiritual and social anchor points of the region.

The remains of the necropolis

In addition, the excavations revealed several Merovingian sarcophagi, characteristic of the High Middle Ages period. They underline the antiquity and continuity of the funerary vocation of the site. These sarcophagi were carved from stone and often decorated. In addition to the sarcophagi, archaeologists have discovered a complex tangle of burials stretching into the late Middle Ages. These burials show diversity in burial practices, including slab casings and simpler burials. They reflect cultural and religious developments over the centuries.

Shot of a burial near the sarcophagus. © Christophe Fouquin, Inrap

The importance of this necropolis is intrinsically linked to the history of Saint-Bénigne Abbey. After the “miracles” of the 6th century, the abbey became a place of pilgrimage and an influential monastic center. Archaeological findings suggest that the necropolis served as a burial place for the local community. But it was also used for pilgrims or eminent members of society of the time, attracted by the prestige of the abbey. This layer of history allows us to understand the stature of the abbey in the European medieval context. It then reveals its role in the structuring of Dijon urban space.

Implications and prospects of the discoveries for Dijon

Recent excavations offer a window on the urban development of the city before its definitive medieval structure. Archaeologists have highlighted a series of road layers which have succeeded one another over the centuries. They highlight the different phases of expansion and modification of the city. These road levels, superimposed on each other, bear witness to the growth of the city and its efforts to structure urban space in response to the increase in its commercial activity and demographic expansion.

Note that the historical configuration of Dijon was marked by its particular topography. The Suzon, a river now buried beneath the city, then separated it into two distinct zones. Before the construction of a large enclosure from the 12th to the 14th century, these two parts were located approximately 500 meters from each other. To the east stood the castrum, an ancient fortification dating back to the year 300. To the west, around the Saint-Bénigne abbey, stretched a lesser-known district. But he participated just as much in the history and life of the medieval town.

Built fireplace being dismantled, itself intersecting with an older fireplace of the same type. © Astrid Couilloud, Inrap

At the same time, the discovery of an extensive artisanal area under the same Place Bossuet sheds new light on the economic dynamics of the medieval town. This area, made up of multiple workshops and work spaces, indicates a concentration of manufacturing and craft activities. The medieval community seemed engaged in commercial exchanges and production intended for both local use and regional trade. Continuing excavations and studies will clarify the function of these spaces. They will thus offer enriched perspectives on the economic role of Dijon before its fortification in the Middle Ages.

Source: Inrap

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