Unraveling the Secrets of the Sarcophagi Found Beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral

Archaeologists are learning more about the two men buried under the iconic Paris landmark

Archaeologists discovered the sarcophagi beneath the floor of the Notre-Dame cathedral's transept. Courtesy of Denis Gliksman / INRAP

During restoration efforts at Notre-Dame Cathedral, which burned in a fire three years ago, archaeologists discovered two mysterious sarcophagi buried under the church’s nave. After months of research, they now know more about who was entombed in them.

One contained the remains of a high priest who died in 1710. Archaeologists gleaned the man’s identity—Antoine de la Porte—from writing on his coffin, which also revealed that he was 83 when he died, per a statement from the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) and Toulouse University Hospital.

Over the past 300 years, his coffin became damaged, which allowed oxygen inside. As such, all that remains are bones, head hair, beard hair and some textiles. Analysis of the remains suggests he took good care of his teeth and led a sedentary life, reports LiveScience’s Kristina Killgrove. The man also showed signs of gout, a painful form of inflammatory arthritis that’s often referred to as the “disease of kings” because of its association with overindulgence in food and alcohol.

Leaf in coffin
The remains of a leaf in the unknown horseman's coffin Courtesy of Denis Gliksman / INRAP

The other coffin held an unknown male between the ages of 25 and 40 who likely lived during an earlier time. Archaeologists think the man—whom they’ve nicknamed “Le Cavalier”—was a horseback rider based on a study of his pelvic bones.

Examining how he was buried, researchers suspect he was an aristocrat. Inside the coffin, they found the remains of leaves and flowers, likely from a crown or wreath. He also appeared to have been embalmed, reports the Guardian’s Kim Willsher. Experts think he suffered from some sort of chronic disease, and he may have died from chronic meningitis that resulted from tuberculosis, per LiveScience.

Both men were buried in lead sarcophagi, which was a practice reserved for the elite. Still, the two coffins are also quite different from each other, suggesting the two men did not live at the same time. The coffin of Le Cavalier, for instance, appears to have been molded around his body.

Researchers study sarcophagus
Researchers analyzed the remains inside both coffins to learn more about who was burned under the cathedral.  Courtesy of Denis Gliksman / INRAP

In April 2019, a fire broke out at the famous Gothic cathedral, which was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Roughly 500 firefighters tried to control the flames, saving much of the structure from ruin. However, the blaze destroyed most of the wooden roof and caused the spire to collapse. Investigators suspect an electrical problem or a cigarette may be to blame.

After the fire, French authorities called in INRAP archaeologists to make sense of the damage and help with rebuilding efforts. During excavations earlier this year, they came across the two coffins, as well as sculptures, statues and remains of original 13th-century architecture.

In November, after transferring the sarcophagi to the forensic institute at the Toulouse University Hospital, scientists used medical imaging equipment technology to study their contents. With further research, they hope to learn even more about the men, including where they were from, what they ate and the causes of their deaths.

Meanwhile, restoration work at the cathedral continues. Crews hope to reopen the historic structure by 2024—in time for the summer Olympics, which will be held in Paris.

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