Several ancient tombs, including a 14th-century lead sarcophagus, have been found beneath the floor of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, offering new insights into the history of Paris’s famed landmark. The discoveries were made during excavation works inside the church in anticipation of the reconstruction of the church’s spire, which collapsed during the 2019 blaze. A team of archaeologists was present to ensure the historic structure was not damaged during the survey.
“The floor of the transept crossing has revealed remains of remarkable scientific quality,” Roselyne Bachelot, France’s Culture Minister, said in a statement.
The French culture ministry reported the tombs and sarcophagus were found below a layer of the church floor dating to the 18th century. The earliest foundation was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the original Gothic structure was built in the following century.
The sarcophagus is made of lead and likely holds the body of an important church dignitary. It could date back to the 14th century. The ministry reported that it was in remarkably good condition, although it had been dented and warped slightly from sitting below the heavy church floor for centuries.
Researchers recently inserted a small camera inside the sarcophagus in an attempt to evaluate the state of its contents, but were unable to identity the body entombed.
“You can glimpse pieces of fabric, hair and above all a pillow of leaves on top of the head, a well-known phenomenon when religious leaders were buried,” Christophe Besnier, an expert from France’s National Archaeological Institute, told Reuters. “The fact that these plants are still there indicates that the contents have been very well preserved.”
Another significant discovery was an opening below the cathedral floor. The opening had likely made around 1230, when the Gothic cathedral was first under construction. Inside it were fragments of a choir screen—an ornate partition that separated the altar from the nave—dating from the 13th century that had been destroyed in the early 18th century. A small trove of carved sculptures, many of them still baring traces of paint, were found nearby, and are thought to have decorated the screen.
On April 15, 2019, the beloved church caught fire as thousands of stunned onlookers watched. The flames sped along its wooden roof, consuming the fragile spire and blanketing the city’s skies with smoke. Firefighters saved the structure, including its two iconic towers, but two-thirds of the roof were destroyed.
“This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives,” President Macron said in a speech after the blaze was extinguished. “It is the cathedral of all the French.”
The cathedral’s restoration project was famously flooded with donations totaling almost $1 billion, according to the charity organization the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. Considering the discoveries, the culture ministry has extended the excavation period until March 24, after which reconstruction of Notre-Dame will resume. The cathedral is set to reopen, complete with a new spire and roof, in 2024.