Notre Dame dig reveals 700-year-old treasures and human remains

In the years since a shocking fire ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, work has been underway to rebuild the spire of the city’s iconic site. Recently, various extraordinary treasures have been unearthed during an excavation dig under the cathedral.

Last month, an ancient graveyard was discovered below the central spot where the transept crosses the Gothic church’s nave, which French archaeologists believe is dated back to the 14th century. A lead body-shaped sarcophagus has been discovered in the graveyard, into which researchers have inserted an endoscopic camera, which revealed its contents. Inside lies a skull, a pillow of leaves, fragments of textiles and several objects. The sarcophagus was found next to several ancient tombs from the Middle Ages.

The dig is what is known as a “preventive dig” and focuses on an area of the cathedral floor which is due to have a 100 foot high, 600 tonne scaffold built on it to reconstruct the spire. The archaeologists have only a very specific area in which to carry out their work, and have been given a strict timeline. Other interesting finds include painted sculptures, tombs, and sections of the original ornate rood screen, which served to separate the clergy and choir from the congregation.

Christopher Besnier, an expert from France’s Archaeological Institute, INRAP, said of the discovery of both the ancient tombs and the sarcophagus, “we uncovered all these riches just 10-15cm under the floor slabs. It was completely unexpected. There were exceptional pieces documenting the history of the monument.” Besnier continued, “It was an emotional moment. Suddenly we have several hundred pieces from small fragments to large blocks including sculpted hands, feet, faces, architectural decorations and plants. Some of the pieces were still coloured.”

Researchers believe that the sarcophagus likely contains the remains of a high church official. A church burial was normally preserved for elites and members of the clergy, and Besnier has said that the survival of the plant materials suggests that the sarcophagus is remarkably well preserved, and could well have been made from a boxwood tree, which was used to preserve the bodies of the social elite.

Dominque Garcia, lead archaeologist at INRAP, has insisted that the body in the sarcophagus will be exhumed “in compliance” with French civil codes regarding human remains. The body will be examined, but after that it will be reburied, likely in the cathedral, “not as an archaeological object but as an anthropological asset”. Garcia explained that “a sarcophagus containing a human body is not an archaeological object. These are human remains, and while examining the sarcophagus and analysing the body and other objects inside, we must do so with respect.”

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