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Rare Find Emerges from Notre Dame Rubble

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

Archaeologists were recently surprised to find something quite unusual as they dug through the wreckage at Notre Dame.

By Ellen McDaniel-Weissler

On April 15, 2019, a disastrous fire broke out in the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The world watched in horror as the edifice, built between 1163 and 1345, was ravaged by flames, destroying the iconic spire and the oak beams supporting the lead roof. Three years on, restoration work is well underway – and perhaps a silver lining to the tragedy has emerged.

Excavation done by the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) has uncovered several fascinating finds beneath the cathedral, chief among them a pristine lead sarcophagus, believed to date from the 14th century.

Undertaken so scaffolding can be erected to allow for reconstruction of the damaged spire, the excavation is taking place in the center of the cathedral where the main transept intersects the 12th-century nave. Excavations conducted in the 19th century beneath the stone floor uncovered heating ducts and bits of what was believed to be a 12th-century rood screen. The current excavation found sculpted elements from the same rood screen buried in a pit immediately below the cathedral’s paving stones, thereby corroborating the earlier finds.

The contents of the sarcophagus, which was discovered at a depth of 65 feet, have been initially “peeked at” by scientists using endoscopic equipment, revealing the upper portion of a skeleton, cloth, hair, and plant remains. "If it turns out that is in fact a sarcophagus from the Middle Ages, we are dealing with an extremely rare burial practice," reports archaeologist Christophe Besnier.

The team performing the dig now plans to date and identify the remains in the sarcophagus. Based on their placement in the cathedral and the apparent opulence of the burial accoutrements, they believe the remains may belong to a personage of some historical importance, such a high church official.

The body may ultimately be re-interred in the cathedral, after forensic studies have been completed.


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