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E05136: A 6th c. burial shrine for two adult males in the apse of the ‘rue Malaval Church’ in Marseille (southern France) was excavated in 2003-4. This shrine had pipes to allow a liquid to be poured over the tombs of the saints. Numerous other burials clustered around the shrine, suggesting devotees buried ad sanctos.

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posted on 2018-02-27, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Rue Malaval church, Marseille / Basilique funéraire de la rue Malaval

The so-called ‘Rue Malaval Church’ in Marseille, southern France, was excavated in 2003-4. The church was built on the Roman road in the fifth century and was abandoned by the seventh century. The nave was 30m x 16m and the apse was 12m x 6.6m. In the choir, around forty sarcophagi, with fifth-century burials, were clustered around a raised memorial decorated with marble facings. This housed two large rose limestone sarcophagi in which two unknown males, were buried. One pipe entered the shrine from above and another at its very base. This was presumably to allow a liquid – most likely oil – to be poured over the tombs and then collected.


Evidence ID


Image Caption 1

Burials ad sanctos. Photo credit: M. Moliner, Marseille (M Moliner, 'La basilique funéraire', Gallia, 69(2) 134, fig. 65)

Image Caption 2

The entry pipe and sarcophagus inside the shrine. Photo credit: M. Moliner, Marseille (M Moliner, 'La basilique funéraire', Gallia, 69(2) 134, fig. 68)

Image Caption 3

The plan of the church. Image from M Moliner, 'La basilique funéraire', Gallia, 69(2) 134, fig. 64)

Type of Evidence

Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea) Archaeological and architectural - Internal cult fixtures (crypts, ciboria, etc.)

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Marseille Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Burial ad sanctos

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Contact relic - oil Contact relic - water and other liquids Making contact relics


There can be no doubt that the two men buried in the decorated marble chest of the 'Rue Malaval church' were considered saints when their monument was built. Evidence of this is the elaborate nature of the monument and its location in the apse of a church, the crowding around it of other burials (most readily interpreted as people seeking burial ad sanctos, as close as possible to two saints), and the pipes leading into and out of the marble structure. These latter are surely evidence of the production of contact relics, by pouring oil into the tomb and collecting the resulting discharge. This practice is documented extensively archaeologically in Syria, though always with much smaller reliquaries, but is less well attested in the Latin West. One of the few other pieces of evidence for this practice can be found in Paulinus of Nola's Natalicia: a series of poems which commemorate the feast day of *Felix (priest and confessor of Nola (southern Italy), S00000). In the sixth and thirteenth poems - written in 400 and 407 respectively - Paulinus describes how perfumed oil was poured into Felix's shrine and the resulting discharge - which was thought to have healing powers - was collected and applied to the body. See E05123. The Syrian reliquaries always allowed the oil to flow directly over the relics themselves (see, for example, E01658, E01829, E01832), and it is clear from Paulinus' description that this also happened at Nola; here in Marseille, the oil only flowed over the inner sarcophagi, though, since these were sealed by the marble chest, this will not have been apparent to people collecting the resulting effluent. Another very interesting feature of the Rue Malaval shrine is that the bodies of the saints were left within it when the church was abandoned, sometime before the seventh century, rather than being translated to another church. Presumably they were no longer considered to be important, and had become 'forgotten' saints; in the absence of an inscription and of any textual evidence, we have no idea who they were, or why they were (temporarily) venerated.


Archaeological Report: Moliner, Manuel, "La basilique funéraire de la rue Malaval à Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône)", Gallia: Archéologie de la France antique 63 (2006), 131-36.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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