Bordeaux is a fussy city, it’s sometimes said, overinvested in the wine trade, with a high opinion of itself; but that’s not my impression. Three years ago we began renting an apartment in the neighbourhood of St Michel. The building is solid but a bit neglected and the flat itself, at forty square metres, a squeeze for two, sometimes three. Still, there are advantages. Rental accommodation is affordable in this old port area on the left bank of the Garonne; people think of it as de facto social housing. Then there’s a sizeable Maghrebi and Turkish presence, which improves life in the cramped kitchen and makes a change from the racial uniformity of the hinterland, where we’d been ensconced for too long. A sketch a few years back on a Bordeaux website about St Michel described it as ‘the most colourful neighbourhood’ in the city. I wasn’t sure how to take that, but after a few years in the place I’m inclined to see colour everywhere.
Another advantage is a magnificent view onto a church, about 35 metres from our building. The style of this large edifice is late Gothic, so-called ‘flamboyant’, and verging on florid, its pinnacles gnarled by the decorative enthusiasm of the period. It was more than a hundred years in the making and completed in the 16th century. We look out across a small, paved square at the angle of the eastern and northern façades. Both were being restored when we moved in; the work took about a year. The streaked, sooty surface of the limestone – so-called starfish limestone, from the marine fossils in the deposit – was buffed to a pale, Saharan yellow by brown-skinned men, of North African and sub-Saharan origin, working on matt grey scaffolding delivered by fair-skinned men in white lorries with a green company logo on the side of the cab.
Nowadays you’d be lucky to find many takers for Sunday Mass: the church is a museum piece, painstakingly restored by people whose religious tradition flourishes on the other side of the Mediterranean, in the mosque and the madrasa. (I’ve seen this before, the other way about, in Bradford during the 1990s, when the Barelvi community commissioned the Madni Jamia mosque in Thornbury, where I spent a couple of weeks when construction was in full swing. The contractors were descendants in a long line of Yorkshire masons and working with Yorkshire stone. Here, on Sunday, you count in dozens; in Thornbury, on Friday, it’s closer to thousands.) The restored stone of St Michel is amenable to all kinds of light: clear mornings, volatile afternoons before an Atlantic downpour, elegiac municipal mood-lighting, designed to flatter the old duchess after dark. On the northern façade the new look is holding up all right, while the western façade has yet to be tackled.
On that side, the one we don’t see from our apartment, lies a much larger square, many times the size of ours. Its central feature is a bell tower 115 metres high, one of the tallest in France. The structure was weakened by repeated lightning strikes and in the 18th century the top fell off during a hurricane. It was restored just before the Franco-Prussian War. Lately down-and-outs have found shelter at its base. The campo is a flea-market for most days of the week, with some good retro-techno stalls laid out on the pavement: if you need a charger for a superannuated cellphone, or replacement burners for a gas oven, this is the mall for you. On Saturday and Monday it’s a busy market for vegetables and clothes. Many of the traders are North African.
I talk about the place as if nothing had changed, but a year or more ago the mayor’s office announced that the ‘public spaces’ of St Michel, including the large square, would be undergoing renovation. The news was greeted with caution: de facto social housing was being cleaned up by landlords in any case and the scruffier buildings of which ours is one were becoming the exception rather than the rule. A tidal rush of public money, with a valuable tender afloat, was about to enter through the breach opened by the private sector. The loan word ‘gentrification’ began to appear on local blogs (with an asterisk and an explanation at the end of the post); it’s as familiar now as a Lipton Yellow Label teabag. What would happen to the traders and the down-and-outs, spoilsports wondered, in these new, clinical spaces, developed with ‘sustainable materials’? What if the square, with its market space and terraces for local restaurants and teahouses (L’Orient, Les Saveurs de l’Atlas, Le Marhaba), became a vast stretch of renewably sourced wooden decking with a couple of juice bars, an art gallery and a solar-powered toilet?
The impending spruce-up is not just about gentrification having led the way in a low-income neighbourhood at the edge of a river. There’s also a ‘historical’ ingredient. A good part of Bordeaux, including shabby St Michel, became a Unesco world heritage site in 2007. We arrived here the following year, when the neighbourhood was a bit like an ageing ship that had put in for repairs. Having been mildly idle, the crew were now beginning to stir. Somewhere at the back of their minds was a distant island and a map with an X at its centre. Then, as the Unesco effect kicked in and galvanised the mayor’s office, it dawned on them that the treasure was probably making its way to the ship.
How to react? The trick, it seemed, was to remain at anchor, looking lively: you ran busily up and down the rigging and caught the condescension of heritage mania full in your sails. Unesco itself does not disburse money to heritage sites but it generates investment and whatever happens next, there are sure to be spoils. The issue is how to divide them when the time comes and whether there’s anything here for people who don’t own bricks and mortar – or limestone, as the buildings mostly are, just like the church.
Early last summer the town hall issued a release to appease the sceptics: the refurbishment would respect the spirit of the neighbourhood, the livelihood of traders and the interests of residents. There was also a mass mailing. In view of the ‘historic’ character of St Michel, there would have to be an archaeological survey before another layer of urbanisation was added to the most recent one, which – as far as I can tell – was a long time ago, probably during the Second Empire, when the house we live in was built. That was intriguing for some, who put their anxieties on hold, but disturbing for anyone who stood to lose money on the café terraces and market stalls because of the inconvenience.
In July the diggers and breakers rolled in for a series of probes. Excavations began with four or five wide exploratory holes, about two metres deep, including one on our side of the church, in the paved cloister, a park and pay area, and another in the main square. Their arrival disrupted parts of the market; it also coincided with an eviction order for a small Spanish-style protest camp next to the bell tower. I went by, bleary-eyed, one morning as the diggers were at work and took the activists for angry traders. I clocked the word indigènes in the graffiti on their pavement banner, laid out in front of them like a trader’s tarp. That was vaguely disconcerting. Were they persuaded that archaeology was just a late colonial eviction scam? Did they mean to take the fight to the white man? Maybe as far as the town hall? I was reassured, on my way back, to see the word I’d misread was indignés – for indignados – and I didn’t spot any of the traders taking part. Nevertheless, the work was a nuisance and no doubt for that reason, the probe in the main square moved along at a smart pace. Within days there was an apologetic rectangle of tarmac where there’d once been a gravel crater full of cool young archaeologists, men and women, all of them white, in hard hats, some of them yellow. The protesters were gone and the market was back.
With the probes completed, larger areas were marked out for proper investigation. One of these was our little square, almost all of it, with one edge of the site below our window and the other bordering the church. Portakabins arrived, including his and hers changing rooms for the archaeologists. Then came a new wave of diggers, rolling over the handsome burgundy paving stones, laid at the time of Napoleon, half a century or more before the building we live in went up. A platoon of unskilled labour, mostly African, marched in with pneumatic drills and picks. They were followed in due course by flatbed trucks, to take away the mass of spoil beneath the pavement, which came off in a day or two, like a layer of plaque after a noisy session of ultrasound.
The invasion was a bore for business on our side of the church just as it was for the traders on the other, though it has to be said that business on our side is a low-key affair. Until the archaeologists arrived, drivers parked and paid or parked and didn’t pay. The tow-away lorry was under our window twice a day. Then there was the local ritual of incontinence: an authentic meridional heritage, it seems to me, but surely not a box Unesco meant to tick. From time to time an elderly white person tottered across the Napoleonic cobbles with an equally elderly dog, quite often white, and you watched with bated breath, hoping the pet didn’t mean to butch it out. More often it was younger men, North African and local, but also the indigènes, on a flying visit to the area, urinating with abandon through the bishop’s railings onto the narrow strip of grass around the church. We, the indignés, would sometimes remonstrate from the window of the flat. All that came to a stop once the excavation barriers were up.
The other flourishing business on our side is the dropping off and collecting of migrants. This too has been on hold since the dig. Battered transit vans, often dark blue, would arrive in the parking zone on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and seven or eight people from somewhere east of the EU accession states would clamber out. As they stretched their legs and took their bearings, failing by and large to admire the church, a non-EU-accession-state male would pace around in a circle with a mobile phone pressed to his ear. In the space of a couple of hours the passengers, men in their thirties or forties, women of roughly the same age, occasionally a couple of minors, would be met by a series of men in saloon cars and when they’d all dispersed the van would head off.
The police, in blue a shade darker than the drop-off van, were often on the scene and they remained a presence on our side despite the constraints of an older city being coaxed from the one we live in now. There were fewer migrants to help them with their inquiries, but on a bright morning in August, two officers in a police car with an African woman in the back stopped outside our building and a lengthy conversation ensued. Occasionally, she cast an apprehensive glance at the archaeologists’ Portakabins as though she expected any moment to be led across the excavation and locked in the women’s changing area.
The archaeologists, about a dozen, were in their thirties, a narrow majority women, and of those quite a few were smokers: a handy pastime at the outset, when co-ordination with the Franco-African labour was frustrating and people were kicking their heels, just as their predecessors had on colonial digs. They huffed and punched their mobiles; they arched their shoulders and bared the palms of their hands, either side of their cargo pants, and then they bunked off for an early lunch with cigarettes between their fingers.
Once the heavy plant had gone, they came into their own. After a few days away, I returned to find the foundations of two, perhaps three courtyards, with two wells and cellars, revealed beneath our window, like a large, carefully staged feature in an urban history exhibition. Word went around that these were at least three hundred years old. The limestone runs, pickled in darkness for centuries, had the same sun-and-sand, day-at-the-beach appeal as the made-over stone of the church. The archaeologists were busy brushing, trowelling, taking photos, or squatting on their haunches, jotting notes on clipboards poised on their muddy trousers. Part of the dig had opened up a square of ceramic tiles, peaked and anaemic, with a trace of pink, possibly an aftermath of red. Would that have been a large interior or a small courtyard? Weeks earlier this had been an undistinguished park-and-piss amenity: now a crowd of residents and visitors hovered inquisitively at the barriers.
To the left of the courtyards were neatly cut flanks of gravel and clay, dropping sheer into pools of brackish water, two metres below ground level. Here and there on the sides were streaks of moist, dark green vegetation. An untrained eye saw nothing of value in these vertical cross-sections, but then the archaeologists began tagging them with small bits of paper, the size of Post-Its. Before long there were dozens fixed to the neatly dug sides of the pits. I’ve no idea what they were recording, but they looked to me like an ingenious form of torment for the souls of wastrels. No need to sick the dogs on them, as Dante did: just stick them in a ditch, knee-deep in mud for eternity, and surround them with old betting slips.
The discovery of a few modern era courtyards was a minor triumph. Even so, the explanatory panels that went up late in the day, as the dig was drawing to a close, hinted at the possibility of more exciting finds, dating back to antiquity. Up the way, on another of the sites, a dreary hole had been revealed, a hole within a hole. There was a commendable show of enthusiasm. A clay-diggers’ pit! But it was thought to date from the eighth century, three hundred years after the Gallo-Roman period, where the French imagination of antiquity is firmly entrenched. Shame. But would a third-century hole have had more charisma? Humble clay-diggers’ pits are among the reasons lovers of antiquity looked down for so long at medieval archaeology. Excavating for medieval remains was not taken seriously in Britain until the 1950s. In France the breakthrough came even later, in the 1980s, around the time Indiana Jones was being reassigned from the Lost Ark to the Last Crusade. Before the medievalists hit a nerve, the only serious archaeologists were the root-canal men: hardy antiquarians who went in deep and were rewarded for their efforts with bits of Iron Age kitchenware or chariot axles from the Roman games.
Digging up the Middle Ages is at last respectable, and ‘rescue’ archaeology along with it. ‘Preventive archaeology’, as it’s also known, was once the exclusive province of the French state and every man or woman up to her elbows in marl was a civil servant. For a while government has been contracting out to private companies, curious, appealing outfits that hire qualified shovel bums to move from one rescue site to another, sifting and scraping in all weathers, moving from gig to gig, era to era, until the work takes it toll, usually on the knees or the back, at which point they redraft their CVs. The contract for St Michel went to Hadès, which has around forty staff, mostly diggers, though for good measure they keep an anthropologist, a carpologist and a topographer on the books. Some of their earlier projects have been spectacular but it was only when the dead began rising around us that the excavations in St Michel acquired the macabre prestige which recovered bones confer on a long and arduous spell of digging, as any dog can attest.
Even a handful of human remains will bring out a crowd, and a little area hard up against the church on the other side from us was soon drawing onlookers as the first skeletons were exhumed from a medieval cemetery, about eight or nine hundred years old. Perhaps. There’s always a perhaps, as a guide was there to explain, every afternoon. By the time I took the tour, it was early September and the archaeologists were working frantically to a deadline, three days away, when the dig was scheduled to close. It was raining and a tent had been placed over one of the dozen or so unearthed graves. We were in the Middle Ages, somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries, the guide assured us. The dating might get more precise once all the materials had been removed and analysed.
The earlier probe in this area, also part of a car park, had identified a graveyard and Hadès had made an estimate of 150 graves in the vicinity of the church. Nothing like that number was revealed. You could see around a dozen, set about half a metre below ground level. A woman under an umbrella thought there might be other graves deeper than these, the dead beneath the dead, as it were. ‘Yes,’ the guide replied, ‘perhaps.’ But he urged us to stick to what we could see. For instance that some graves were lined with small sarcophagi hewn from what looked like a single piece of stone; that others held coffins made from separate blocks of stone; that a few of the graves were shallow oblong declivities with nothing but bones, and occasionally nothing at all. Which was to say that people of different standing and wealth were buried together. We nodded assent.
On this side of the church the earth was dark in places, with a rusty hue, and the bones were the colour of nicotine stains on a smoker’s fingers. One or two skeletons lay scattered but intelligible, like the assembly instructions for a kit. Others looked as though they’d been seized in the jaws of a wild animal and vigorously shaken. In a corner of the dig, a young archaeologist with long blond hair scraped away meticulously at the earth around a skeleton half tucked into the flank of the car park, not quite an overhang, but a fortuitous shelter, like a crypt. Next to it were the jumbled, sorry remains of remains, a fragment of skull, a hip bone and femur. Above them on the edge of the car park an archaeologist stood behind a hi-tech theodolite with adjustable yellow legs and red trim. The legs were grotesquely extended and put me in mind of a figure in a painting by Wyndham Lewis. I began to imagine that the archaeologist too had adjustable legs, concealed by his cargo pants: any moment he’d ratchet up to an enormous height, man and machine performing an outlandish ceremony to propitiate the dead.
Someone suggested to the guide that the bodies weren’t very big. Someone else, protecting her hair from the rain with a copy of our local paper, Sud Ouest, asked if they weren’t children. The guide sighed. It was just that people were smaller in those days. He drew our attention to two well-preserved skeletons, arms by their sides, the hands apparently palm up, in ‘nobody knows’ or ‘none of my business’ attitudes. He reckoned they’d been buried with their hands folded piously over the sternum. But with the rapid onset of decay their stomachs had burst; the force of the explosion had flung their arms away, bringing them to rest in these plain, agnostic gestures. He told us the damage to the skulls was caused by weight, as one project after another – pavements, thoroughfares, eventually the car park – pressed down on the remains. Then he pointed us to a tarnished clasp on the pelvic area of one of the bodies. ‘What does that mean?’ he asked. ‘It means that people were buried in their clothes.’ A TV journalist in a raincoat was chivvying one of the archaeologists towards a sarcophagus, complete with occupant. From the ridge of the car park her cameraman directed them a little closer.
Heading home after the rest of the tour I stopped to look for the last time at the remains nursed by the blond in the crypt area. ‘What will they do with them?’ an ancient Algerian asked, as we stood together gazing through the wire barrier. ‘They’ll take them away,’ I said, as though I had all the answers now, and he shook his head in disbelief. The TV interview was over. At the centre of the excavation another archaeologist was brushing the spoil from the hip of a skeleton. It was like watching a careworker nursing her bedridden charge; the patient seemed to be smiling feebly, gratefully, but later, thinking back on it, all I could see was a knowing grin.
By then it was over and the heavy plant had arrived to obliterate the excavations. Load upon load of filler was brought in on trailers and dumped, spread by diggers, flattened by rollers, and topped with a layer of asphalt. The clay-diggers’ pit, the splendid courtyards below our window, the little wells and the betting slips, the world of the dead, all were covered in less than a week by tawny white men in denim jeans. We were dazed. It was as though we’d walked out of a thrilling movie and we were now standing at a windswept bus stop.
The development began to get going at the start of this year. By 2014, it was said, we’d be looking out onto some kind of green space and though I like the colour green, I could already smell the future: the smallest patch of grass around these parts works its diuretic magic on men and beasts alike. But it seems from the plans on the website as if our little habitat is going to remain paved after all and that the cobbles removed during the dig will be brought back and reset. There is no mention of parking, so we may have seen the last of the tattered blue van disgorging migrants. In the meantime, the vegetable sellers have been relocated from the other side of the church. Every Saturday in the small hours they set up their stalls outside the house. By nine in the morning we’re gazing down on a North African market scene with colours out of August Macke. And from there our eyes stray across to the Gothic façade at the back of the picture, rising to fill the frame.