It’s a gray January day in Paris, and a crowd has gathered along Canal Saint-Martin. But as the people stare into the murky brown depths below, the waters slowly empty, uncovering secrets that have been kept hidden for many years. And as the bottom of the 200-year-old canal emerges into view, a truly bizarre underside of the city is revealed.
Could Napoleonic treasures be concealed beneath the surface? The canal was certainly old enough. It had started off life back in 1802, when around 550,000 people were living in Paris – and the population was continuing to grow. Napoleon I hoped, then, that canals bringing fresh water to the city would help to prevent the spread of disease.
So, over the couple of decades that followed, three canals were dug across the city. Altogether, they sprawl more than 80 miles across Paris. Canal Saint-Martin is arguably the most famous of the three, and it connects the 68-mile Canal de l’Ourcq with the long, lazy flow of the River Seine.
Canal Saint-Martin begins in Bassin de l’Arsenal by the Seine before traveling underground beneath Place de la Bastille. That name sound familiar? It’s probably because it was the site of a prison that was stormed during the French Revolution. Then the waters emerge close to the Place de la République before heading north to the Bassin de la Villette. There, Canal Saint-Martin joins with the Canal de l’Ourcq and the River Ourcq beyond.
In total, then, Canal Saint-Martin covers some three miles of central Paris – meaning there was a lot of H20 for the workers to empty out. Originally funded by a levy on wine, it historically brought trade as well as fresh water to the city. In its heyday, the canal also brought building supplies and food to the people of Paris.
Today, though, the canal is more popular as a leisure destination for locals and visitors. Paris’ wealthy young bohemians can often be seen congregating on its banks and in sidewalk cafes, while the picturesque bridges are a magnet for tourists exploring the city.
Over time, in fact, the canal has become an iconic symbol of the city. It’s inspired painters such as the British impressionist Alfred Sisley. Throughout the years, the waterway has even featured in a number of movies, including the 2001 classic Amelie. See if you can spot it next time you watch!
But, rather inevitably, close to 200 years of operation have taken their toll on the canal. So, officials make an effort to empty it every ten to 15 years. That way, they can remove the detritus that has found its way to the bottom. And while there are usually a few small treasures to be found, the workers in January 2016 were in for a shock.
The last time that the canal had been drained was back in 2001, when the authorities retrieved some 40 tons of trash from the water. They also uncovered a car – yes, really! – washing machines, gold coins and two 75mm WWI-era shells.
Since then, the area around Canal Saint-Martin has become famous for its nightlife, with young people flocking to the previously exclusive district. Some folks had been concerned, however, that these revelers would bring even more waste to the waterway. And in 2016, it was time to find out if they had.
On January 4 work began on the mammoth task of emptying the canal. The project would take three months and involve shifting some 3 million cubic feet of water. It would also cost the city over $10 million – a whole lot of money – but it needed to be done.
First, workers drained the water from the canal until just 20 inches remained. Next, it was time to evacuate the fish. For three days, the team rushed to catch the bream, trout and carp that live in the muddy waters, transporting them to safety in another section of the waterway.
Then, on January 7, the rest of the water was emptied from the canal, and its secrets were finally revealed for the first time in 15 years. What was exposed at the bottom amazed witnesses, who had gathered on the canal’s footbridges to have a closer look.
Much of the garbage at the bottom of the canal was of the sort you probably expect – glass bottles, shopping bags and traffic cones, for instance. Some of it, though? Well, it left locals puzzling over how such stuff had ever ended up in the water.
Among the most common objects revealed as the water levels dropped were bicycles, particularly ones from the city’s Vélib hire system. Launched in 2007, this scheme had brought some 14,500 bikes to the streets of Paris. Sadly, though, many of them seem to have met an unfortunate fate.
“It’s like some kind of weird submarine treasure,” one witness, Marc, told The Guardian. “I just can’t believe the quantity of Vélibs in there. I guess they were stolen and thrown in afterward. It’s bizarre.” But bicycles weren’t the only strange things to have found their way to the bottom of the canal.
Even more unbelievably, a pair of motorbikes were also revealed as the waters continued to plummet. How did such expensive pieces of equipment end up dumped in the canal? The truth may never be known – and there were more mysteries waiting to be discovered, too.
Alongside the bicycles and motorbikes were shopping carts, chairs, garbage cans and suitcases, all scattered across the muddy surface. There were stranger oddities, too: a ghetto blaster-style music player, for example, and even an abandoned toilet bowl. Together, they painted a fascinating picture of life along – and under – the canal.
“That’s Paris for you,” onlooker Bernard commented. “It’s filthy.” And apparently it’s only getting worse. “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it,” he continued. “I despair. The [youngsters] are using it as a dustbin.”
But despite this, is there hope for the future of Canal Saint-Martin? Well, with the litter problem laid bare for everyone to see, authorities have seized the opportunity to speak out. “If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything into the water,” deputy mayor Celia Blauel told the MailOnline, “we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years.” Rather her than us.
Of course, Canal Saint-Martin isn’t the only murky waterway in Europe hiding some curious secrets. In 19th-century London, for example, the authorities ordered the dredging of the River Thames. And beneath its sewage-filled surface, workers discovered something that hadn’t seen the light of day for 2,000 years.
The story begins in Victorian England, when the country’s capital city was home to some 3.5 million people. Ten years before the discovery – in 1858 – the Great Stink had turned the banks of the Thames into a horror show with warm weather exacerbating the stench of human and industrial waste to almost unbearable levels.
Wary of the spread of disease, the authorities began to focus on directing sewage away from the river. Meanwhile, the newly formed Thames Conservancy, charged with the river’s upkeep, worked to keep the waters in line with the demands of commercial shipping. And in order to accommodate the newer, wider vessels, it was necessary to dredge the river.
In early 1868 dredging work was taking place in the Thames with the aim of improving its navigation. Apparently, much of the material removed from the riverbed went on to be used as ballast to stabilize boats. Yet there was one discovery that definitely didn’t find its way to the local shipyard.
While toiling on the Thames riverbed, workers stumbled across something remarkable. It was a bronze helmet with two conical horns, unlike anything that had been discovered in the region before. Forged from two separate sheets of metal – one for the front and one for the back – the helmet was held together by a series of neat rivets.
Interestingly, both sides of the helmet were decorated in the repoussé style – a type of creative process that involves hammering the back of a metal sheet in order to create a relief pattern. Using this ancient technique, the bronze had been embossed with a striking design.
The designs were apparently in the style of the La Tène culture – representative of an Iron Age people who lived in Britain from 250 to 50 BC. What’s more, the helmet was adorned with five bronze studs – with space for a missing sixth. And according to experts, the embellishments had once housed decorations crafted from glass that had been colored red.
On top of the work on the main body of the helmet, some additional parts had been riveted on to create the finished piece. Beneath the front sheet, a sickle-shaped section of bronze had been added, while binding and clips had been used to strengthen the edges of the cap. Meanwhile, each horn had been crafted from a single sheet of copper alloy and capped with a terminal stud.
On either side, the helmet was equipped with circular fittings – perhaps designed to hold a cheekpiece or a type of chinstrap. And connecting the two fixtures was a row of decorative rivets, running across the helmet and circling the base of both horns. Finally, the edges were punctuated by a number of small holes that might once have held a liner in place.
By the time that the helmet was retrieved from the river, the bronze had turned a dull shade of green. However, at one time it would have been polished to a bright gleam. And at almost two feet in circumference – and with a weight of some 20 ounces – it must have been a very impressive piece.
In March 1868 the Thames Conservancy loaned the discovery to the British Museum. And over the years, experts have been able to piece together a picture of who might have created the helmet – and why. Apparently, they believe that it dates from around 150 to 50 BC, towards the latter part of Britain’s Iron Age.
Interestingly, the helmet is too thin and delicate to have had any useful protective purpose. Most believe instead that it was created to be used in ceremonies. What’s more, the cap part of the piece is small in size, making it unlikely to have been worn by a grown warrior. Alternatively, it may have been created to sit on a statue’s head.
Dubbed the Waterloo Helmet, this piece has come to occupy a unique position in British archaeology. You see, it is only the third helmet from the Iron Age ever to be found on English soil – along with the Meyrick Helmet, discovered in the armory of an 18th-century collector, and the Canterbury Helmet, retrieved from a meadow in Kent in 2012. However, neither of these other helmets have horns.
In fact, the Waterloo Helmet is the only Iron Age helmet with horns to ever be discovered in Europe – despite the fact that they make a number of appearances in contemporary artwork across the region. For example, a 55 BC carving in Orange, France, depicts men wearing horned helmets – although they are curved rather than straight.
Similarly, a cauldron discovered in Gundestrup, Denmark, in 1891 is decorated with a figure wearing another horned helmet. The find apparently dates to around 150 BC. These horns are also curved, however – although they do terminate in rounded knobs, rather than points, just like those on the Waterloo Helmet.
Even though the Waterloo Helmet is the only known example of its kind, its aesthetic has had a wide-reaching impact on artistic depictions of the era. In fact, it is now common for Iron Age men to be shown wearing horned helmets – despite there being little evidence to suggest they were commonplace.
Bizarrely, the helmet isn’t the only archaeological anomaly that has been recovered from Britain’s riverbeds over the years. In 1857, for example, just over a decade before the Waterloo helmet’s discovery, another startling discovery was made by workers dredging the Thames – this time in the vicinity of London’s Chelsea Bridge.
Dubbed the Battersea Shield, this decorated sheet of bronze is often regarded as one of the most remarkable examples of the era’s craftsmanship ever discovered in Britain. Again designed in the La Tène style, it is thought to date from 350 to 50 BC – making it potentially even older than the Waterloo Helmet.
And even earlier than that, in 1827, another shield was recovered from the River Witham in Lincolnshire, England – some 150 miles north of the River Thames. Thought to date to around 400 BC, this piece also boasts the familiar La Tène flourishes. In addition, it once bore a leather emblem in the shape of a wild boar.
But is there any connection between these Iron Age discoveries retrieved from rivers many miles apart? According to some experts, the location of these pieces implies that they were once tossed into the water as religious offerings. But if that was indeed the Waterloo Helmet’s original purpose, it is now enjoying a second lease of life. In 1988 it was permanently gifted to the British Museum – where it remains on display to this day.