Two years after devastating Notre Dame fire, 'preventative' archaeological dig uncovers cultural treasures

Updated: Apr 15, 2022, 12:59 PM(IST)

An archaeological dig beneath Notre Dame Cathedral has unearthed a rich trove of statues, sculptures, graves, and fragments of a 13th-century rood screen.

Let's take a look at the discoveries:

Emotional, amazing discoveries

As per a report by the Guardian, several old tombs from the Middle Ages were discovered, as well as a body-shaped lead sarcophagus was found buried beneath the transept crossing's floor.

French experts called the discovery, emotional and amazing.

France’s national archaeological institute Inrap announced the discoveries on Thursday.

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


Preventative excavation

The discoveries were made during a preventative archaeological excavation of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral that was ravaged by fire in 2019. Between February and April, a team from the institute was called in to conduct a preventive excavation beneath a piece of the cathedral floor before a 100-foot-high 600-tonne scaffold was built to repair the ravaged monument's spire.

This archeological dig is being carried out by l'établissement public chargé de la conservation et de la restauration de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (EPRNDP).

As per experts the lead sarcophagus probably dates from the 13th century.

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


The 2019 fire

These discoveries could've stayed buried for decades, if not for the 2019 fire that destroyed the cathedral. The iconic spire burned and fell to the ground right in front of thousands of Parisians who could only watch as the beloved French landmark was destroyed.

The iconic cathedral had survived years of wars and revolutions, and understandably not just in Paris but people all over the world were dismayed at the huge loss. France President Emmanuel Macron had then pledged to have the iconic building rebuilt and open for mass in five years' time.



God's image?

During the renovation of Notre Dame in the mid-nineteenth century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who also constructed the spire, a large portion of the rood appears to have been methodically buried beneath the cathedral floor.

Perhaps the most remarkable discovery among the discoveries is the intact sculpture of a man's head, which may represent Jesus.

During the Counter-Reformation movement in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the icons in Catholic churches were removed.

Interestingly, to date, only a few fragments of the original rood screen - an elegant wall that separates the clergy, choir from the congregation - have survived. A few of the pieces are stored in the cathedral vaults while some are on display at the Louvre Museum.

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


Some pieces left to be explored at a later date

The report goes on to say that as per Christophe Besnier, the dig's lead, they discovered the riches merely 10-15cm under the floor slabs. Describing the finds as completely unexpected, Besnier noted that these pieces were exceptional and document the history of the monument.

As per Besnier, they have found several more rood screen slabs beneath the floor, but they were outside the dig's specified limits. He said that they know they're there, and they're not going to be harmed, adding that "Hopefully, we will be able to uncover them at a later date".

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


The sarcophagus

Experts believe the lead sarcophagus holds the body of a high-ranking church leader from the 14th century. A camera inserted into the casket found plant remains under the deceased's head, as well as hair and textile fragments, but no plate identifying the person.

"A sarcophagus containing a human body is not an archaeological object," Dominique Garcia, president of Inrap, stated, adding that more testing, including DNA tests, would be conducted. These are human remains, and we must treat them with respect while we examine the sarcophagus and analyse the body and other artefacts inside.

He stated that no decision had been made on where the remains would be reburied after the examinations were done. However, he said that it's possible that the remains will be buried within the cathedral.

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


Cathedral to be open in 2024

The safety of the cathedral structure had been confirmed, meaning the restoration and reconstruction of the areas devastated by fire could begin. This revelation was made last September, by Gen Jean-Louis Georgelin, who was selected to oversee the restoration. He stated that the cathedral would be open for public tours and services in 2024, as promised.

(Images: Inrap/Twitter)


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