Unearthing the Past of Notre Dame: Discoveries, Mysteries, and Elite Burials

After the devastating fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in April 2019, INRAP (National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research) archaeologists were asked to help assess the damage and contribute to preservation efforts (Kuta 2022). The INRAP team’s task was to conduct a “preventative dig” beneath a portion of the cathedral floor from February to April 2020 (Willsher 2022). They had a tight schedule and a very specific excavation site to investigate in preparation for the construction of a 30-meter-high, 600-ton scaffold to restore the cathedral’s spire (Willsher 2022). Throughout the excavation and restoration process, two coffins, sculptures, statues, and the remains of original 13th century architecture were discovered (Kuta 2022).

Image of the excavated sarcophagi (Courtesy of Denis Gliksman/INRAP)

 Learn more about INRAP: https://www.inrap.fr/en 

The most intriguing and revealing discovery were the two lead sarcophagi. The sarcophagi were sent to the forensic institute at the Toulouse University hospital, where medical imaging equipment was used to study where they were from, their diets, and their cause of death (Kuta 2022). Eric Crubézy, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Toulouse III, supervised the opening of the coffins and noted that both individuals were evidently significant figures in their respective time periods to receive burials in such prestigious tombs (Willsher 2022).

Image of archaeologists examining the floor of the Notre Dame Cathedral (Courtesy of Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images)

One lead sarcophagus contained the remains of a man in his 30s and had no name plaque (Willsher 2022). The unidentified individual was likely a young and affluent noble from as early as the 14th century whose body was severely deteriorated due to air exposure (Willsher 2022). He has been referred to as “Le Cavalier” because his pelvic bones indicated he was a trained horseman (Willsher 2022). Alongside him in the sarcophagus, archaeologists found cloth and plant material, evidence of embalming, and a crown of flowers, signifying his elite status (Willsher 2022). His teeth showed significant damage, implying a struggle with a chronic disease, while a cranial deformation suggested that he had worn a headdress or headband in infancy (Willsher 2022). The unknown cavalier was buried at the foot of a large cross, a decorative divider that separated the clergy and choir from the rest of the congregation, further indicating his elite status (Willsher 2022).

A high priest who died in 1710 was identified in the second lead sarcophagus (Willsher 2022). Archaeologists were able to confirm who he was due to a brass plaque that stated his name was Antoine de la Porte (Willsher 2022). His body was also severely deteriorated due to oxygen entering the tomb and water exposure from the 1910 flooding of the Seine (Willsher 2022). Bones, head hair, beard hair and some textiles remained in his tomb (Kuta 2022). Antoine de la Porte was a wealthy and influential figure and a canon of the Notre Dame Cathedral who died on Christmas Eve in 1710 at the age of 83 (Willsher 2022). Crubézy explained that de la Porte had “extraordinary good teeth” and they were “remarkable for his age,” demonstrating that “he clearly cleaned his teeth and took care of them” (Willsher 2022). 

Image of the research site at the Notre Dame Cathedral (Courtesy of Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images) 

Learn more about how the study of teeth contributes to archaeological discoveries:  https://dentistry.uic.edu/news-stories/what-ancient-teeth-can-tell-us-about-humanitys-past/#:~:text=Teeth%20are%20great%20for%20studying,%2C%20Diet%2C%20and%20Human%20Origins

Dominique Garcia, the president of INRAP, emphasized that the human remains would be handled with utmost respect throughout the research process (Willsher 2022). Ultimately, the Culture Ministry in Paris will be responsible for deciding what happens to the bodies (Willsher 2022). The intriguing discoveries that arose after the fire provide archaeologists with valuable insights into the people and the rich history intertwined with the Notre Dame Cathedral.


Kuta, Sarah. “Unraveling the Secrets of the Sarcophagi Found beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral.” Smithsonian.com, December 16, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/unraveling-the-secrets-of-the-sarcophagi-found-underneath-notre-dame-180981305/#:~:text=Archaeologists%20gleaned%20the%20man’s%20identity,INRAP.

Willsher, Kim. “Notre Dame’s Uncovered Tombs Start to Reveal Their Secrets.” The Guardian, December 9, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/09/notre-dames-uncovered-tombs-start-to-reveal-their-secrets.

2 thoughts on “Unearthing the Past of Notre Dame: Discoveries, Mysteries, and Elite Burials

  1. You mention multiple times the informative properties of dental wear. Other than mapping out the health and hygiene conditions of the owner, what other information could teeth provide us (when they are discovered at an archaeological site)?

    • The analysis of teeth at archaeological sites provides a comprehensive understanding of past populations, for example, dietary patterns, geographical and cultural migration, age estimation, population genetics, cultural practices, health and stress, lifestyle and occupation, and social structures. Dental anthropology, bioarchaeology, and isotopic analysis can be employed to study dental remains.

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