Workers Discover 700-Year-Old Lead Coffin Beneath Notre Dame Cathedral

Workers Discover 700-Year-Old Lead Coffin Beneath Notre Dame Cathedral
A lead sarcophagus discovered underneath the floor of Notre Dame de Paris. (Photo: JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP, Getty Images)

Out of the ashes of the Notre Dame cathedral’s terrible fire are springing new discoveries: A team of archaeologists recently found sculptures and several tombs just below the church’s floor, as well as a 14th-century lead sarcophagus that they believe belonged to a religious leader.

The discoveries were made ahead of the reconstruction of Notre Dame’s spire, which collapsed during an April 2019 blaze. In anticipation of the spire’s reconstruction, researchers had to check the stability of Notre Dame’s floor. Archaeologists were on hand to ensure that nothing important was damaged in the process.

The French cultural ministry stated that multiple burials were found beneath the church floor, which dates to the 18th century. The ministry did not offer details about the nature of any burials besides the lead sarcophagus, which was found around the pipes of an underground heating system dating to the 19th century. It’s unclear why the post-Napoleonic Parisians left the sarcophagus interred amidst their plumbing. But despite previous disruptions, the sarcophagus is in surprisingly good shape, though warped and a little dented from the weight of the earth on top of it for so many years.

Archaeologists on site inserted a small camera into the sarcophagus to evaluate the preservation of its contents. The images ended up offering a hint at who was entombed in the metal box.

“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 archaeologist at France’s National Archaeological Institute, told Reuters. “The fact that these plants are still there indicates that the contents have been very well preserved.”

The sarcophagus’ material wasn’t surprising. Since Roman times, sarcophagi were made of lead, and in the Medieval period lead was a popular building material. Unfortunately, that means much of Notre Dame was made of lead, so the cathedral fire also spewed toxic debris across Paris.

The tombs, sarcophagus, and carved sculptures were found in the centre of Notre Dame’s floor, where the church’s transept crosses its nave, according to the cultural ministry. The sculptures depicted hands, vegetables, and the bust of a bearded man. Traces of paint were visible on some of the objects. Based on their location in the church, archaeologists believe the carvings were part of the church’s original rood (or choir) screen — the large structure that separates a church altar from the nave.

The collapse of Notre Dame's spire in a fire on April 15, 2019. (Photo: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP, Getty Images)The collapse of Notre Dame’s spire in a fire on April 15, 2019. (Photo: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP, Getty Images)

At least one of the church’s elaborate 13th-century choir screens was saved by firefighters during the blaze. But the screen the archaeologists think they’ve found remnants of was demolished centuries ago.

Reuters reported that the tombs were beneath a stone layer dating to the 18th century, though sections of the church floor date to the early 13th century. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1163 (by Pope Alexander III) and most of the church was completed in the ensuing century, though its iconic, recently destroyed spire wasn’t built until the 19th century (it being the successor to an earlier, decaying spire).

The future spire will be made of the same materials as before, according to Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, a charity established to fundraise for the cathedral’s restoration. The archaeological team has until March 25 to complete their excavation work, before reconstruction of the cathedral resumes. Notre Dame is expected to reopen in 2024.