An archaeological excavation under Notre Dame Cathedral has revealed an extraordinary treasure trove of statues, carvings, tombs and pieces of original screen dating back to the 13th century.
The discovery included several ancient tombs from the Middle Ages and a lead sarcophagus in the shape of a body buried in the heart of the monument, which was destroyed by fire under the floor of the Pavilion Crossing.
French experts described this discovery as “extraordinary and emotional.”
“We discovered all these riches only 10-15 cm below the floorboards. It was completely unexpected. There were exceptional pieces documenting the history of the monument,” said Christophe Besnier, who headed the scientific team for the excavation.
“It was an emotional moment. Suddenly we had several hundred pieces from small fragments to large blocks including carved hands, feet, faces, architectural ornaments and plants. Some pieces were still colorful.”
The discovery was revealed by France’s National Archaeological Institute, Inrap, on Thursday. A team from the institute was called in to perform a “preventive excavation” under a section of the cathedral’s floor between February and April before building a 100-foot-high, 600-ton scaffold to rebuild the monument’s tower.
So far, only a few fragments remain of the original Notre Dame rood screen, the ornate section between the altar and the nave that separates the clergy and the choir from the worshipers. Some of them are in the storage rooms of the cathedral, while others are on display in the Louvre. In the Catholic churches, most of them were removed during the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rest of Rue Notre Dame appears to have been carefully buried under the cathedral floor during the restoration of the building by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – who added the tower – in the mid-19th century.
One of the most remarkable pieces was an intact statue of a man’s head, believed to represent Jesus, carved out of stone. Shows another block of jagged screen, believed to be from the 13th century, a Gothic-style monument.
The Inrap team was given a strict time frame and only a specific area to conduct the excavations. After a fire broke out in the 850-year-old cathedral, one of Paris’ most emblematic and visited monuments, in April 2019, destroying nearly the entire edifice, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild it and open it for mass within five years.
Last September, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, who was appointed to oversee the restoration, said the integrity of the cathedral’s structure had been established, meaning that restoration and rebuilding of the sections destroyed by fire could begin. He said the cathedral will be open for public services and visits as promised in 2024.
Besnier said they identified several more slabs of the underground wooden parapet, but they were outside the specified excavation limit. We know they are there and won’t be harmed. Hopefully we can reveal it at a later time.
Excavations also revealed a network of heating pipes built underground in the 19th century.
Experts believe that the lead sarcophagus may contain the body of a high church official possibly dating back to the 14th century. A camera inserted into the coffin revealed plant remains under the deceased’s head along with hair and fragments of cloth, but there was no plaque identifying the inhabitant.
Dominic Garcia, President of Inrap, said that further examinations would be carried out including DNA tests, but added: “The sarcophagus containing a human body is not an archaeological object. These are human remains, and while examining the sarcophagus and analyzing the body and other things inside it, they must We do it with respect.”
He said no decision had been made on where to rebury the body once the tests had been completed. “It is too early to say. It is possible that she will be reburied somewhere in the cathedral.”