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Digging in the City of Light Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Michel Fleury, director of the Commission du Vieux Paris. (Courtesy Michel Fleury) [LARGER IMAGE]

Michel Fleury stabs the air with his finger, thundering, "There is no archaeology without history!" A man of passionately felt convictions, the 76-year-old distinguished medievalist is sharing a bottle of champagne with me in his office at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning in late July. Widely regarded as the grand old man of Parisian archaeology, Fleury, svelte in his light-blue summer suit, bears the mantle lightly.

Director of the city's most impressive and high-profile excavations since World War II, Fleury has been awarded the French Ministry of Culture's National Grand Prize for Archaeology. Yet he believes that archaeology is more a means to an end than a science itself. Excavators, he says, are often nowadays "nothing but technicians," their finds meaningless without a knowledge of history and scholarly bibliography. "There is too much of a tendency among many young people to believe they are savants once they scratch the earth," he says. Fleury repeats, "There is no archaeology without history," several times during our meeting. It is a mantra gleaned from experience, because historical documents have played a crucial role in his most important excavations.

The main offices of the Commission du Vieux Paris, a 40-member group headed by Fleury that advises mayor Jean Tiberi on archaeology and preservation issues, occupies the Hôtel Châlon-Luxembourg in the Marais district, once home to seventeenth-century courtiers, petty nobility, and literati. Fleury's office would still have the feeling of a residence were it not full of tables piled with dossiers, papers, reports, and books on medieval France, many missing their spines. The large room is decorated with yellow-and-white-striped wallpaper, a crystal chandelier, a grandfather clock, four busts (Louis XVIII, both of Fleury's great-grandparents, and the nineteenth-century epigrapher Léon Renier), and two pier-glass mirrors that reflect the scholarly clutter. A portrait of Abbé Lebeuf, the great eighteenth-century historian of Paris, hangs from the wall, a copy Fleury commissioned to honor the man's memory. Two enormous windows look out on a private garden, the preserve of two statues representing characters from classical mythology.

From this den of baroque chaos, Fleury protects Paris' historical buildings from some developers who would gladly see them kissed by the wrecking ball; he also oversees all archaeological salvage projects within the city limits. Each year the commission receives some 1,000 petitions to build, destroy, or modify buildings in Paris, and at monthly meetings it must decide how to advise the mayor in cases where the city's architectural or archaeological record might be threatened.

When, in the early 1960s, an underground parking lot beneath the courtyard fronting the Cathedral of Notre Dame was proposed, Fleury had the plans altered to make room for the world's largest subterranean archaeological display, showcasing Roman through nineteenth-century foundations discovered during salvage excavations. When, in the late 1970s, a plan was hatched to install drainage piping in the southwestern part of the Louvre's Cour Carrée (Square Court), he lobbied to create a second subterranean display of the impressive foundations of the first Louvre, near architect I.M. Pei's underground entrance to the museum. When Paris' ancient market, Les Halles, was moved to the south of the city and the area redeveloped in the early 1970s, Fleury and art historian Jean-Pierre Babelon mobilized public opinion, publishing an inventory of the neighborhood's architecturally significant buildings that was responsible for saving some 200 of them. "If there are still historical monuments in the area of Les Halles, it's thanks to Michel Fleury," says Philippe Marquis, a commission archaeologist.

Spencer P.M. Harrington is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America