A sarcophagus made of lead discovered in the depths of the Notre-Dame Cathedral among an ancient graveyard will soon be opened, French archaeologists said Thursday.
The sarcophagus was found laying amid several tombs “of remarkable scientific quality” 65 feet below the central spot where the transept crosses the 12th century Gothic church’s nave, France’s Culture Minister, said last month.
The discoveries were made during excavation work in anticipation of the reconstruction of the church’s iconic spire, which collapsed in a shocking 2019 fire. The team of archaeologists were present in the church to ensure the fragile floor of the Paris landmark was not damaged during the survey.
The graveyard was found below a layer of the church floor dating to the 18th century, but researchers believe it is much older, likely dating to the 14th century. Researchers inserted an endoscopic camera inside the sarcophagus for a peek of its contents, revealing parts of skull, a pillow of leaves, fragments of textiles, and several objects.
Christophe Besnier, an expert from France’s National Archaeological Institute, told Reuters that laying plants beneath the skeleton was a “well-known phenomenon when religious leaders were buried,” adding that “the fact that these plants are still there indicates that the contents have been very well preserved.”
INRAP, France’s national archaeological research institute, announced during a press conference that the sarcophagus — slightly bent and warped from sitting below layers of thick foundation for centuries—had been extracted from the cathedral on Tuesday and will be sent “very soon” to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in the city of Toulouse.
In a statement, INRAP lead archeologist Dominique Garcia stressed that the body will be exhumed “in compliance” with French civil codes regarding human remains. After the examination is completed, the body will be returned “not as an archaeological object but as an anthropological asset,” Garcia said.
The French ministry announced the opening of the sarcophagus a day before the third anniversary of
almost $1 billion, according to the charity organization the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral is set to reopen, complete with a new spire and roof, in 2024.
“This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech after the fire was extinguished. “I’m telling you all tonight—we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny.”