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.

Exploring the World of Underwater Archaeology

Underwater archaeology involves exploring and preserving archaeological treasures submerged in oceans, lakes, and rivers. The emergence of scuba diving in the mid-20th century helped propel the development of underwater archaeology. The submerged sites studied by underwater archaeologists consist of shipwrecks, ancient human remains, and sunken settlements (Blakemore 2021). Some practical challenges and difficulties of underwater archaeology include access to sites, transportation of equipment, weather conditions, specifically the tides and the dynamic nature of water, data interpretation, international and local laws, and the need for skilled divers. LiDAR, sonar, advanced imaging aids, remote sensing devices, advanced photography, and submersibles all aid archaeologists in discovering and documenting submerged sites and artifacts (Blakemore 2021). Forming strong relationships with local communities can be very important for underwater archaeologists because the locals may have valuable knowledge of the waters being explored. For example, local fishers played a crucial role in assisting archaeologists in the discovery of 23 shipwrecks near Fourni, Greece (Blakemore 2021). 

Figure 1. Example of a LiDAR map of Inlet, Virginia.

Learn more about the LiDAR technology: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lidar.html#:~:text=Lidar%2C%20which%20stands%20for%20Light,variable%20distances 

One interesting example of an underwater discovery is the identification of submerged DNA in Chios, Greece by archaeologist Brendan Foley and environmental geneticist Maria Hansson. Foley had surveyed a classical shipwreck near the Greek island of Chios but couldn’t identify the cargo. Hansson suggested DNA analysis on the recovered amphorae (Archaeological Institute of America 2009). Amphora is a type of ancient vessel or container, typically made of clay or ceramic, with a distinctive shape. Hansson found genetic traces of olive, oregano, and tree resin, providing direct evidence of the ship’s cargo. Foley and Hansson’s findings provided evidence about the ancient economy. They also demonstrated that, in certain instances, the marine environment can be conducive to DNA preservation (Archaeological Institute of America 2009). This discovery informs fellow archaeologists that conducting DNA analyses in aquatic environments is indeed feasible and can prove a lot about the ancient economy.

Another interesting example of an underwater discovery was in 2013 when a chemical analysis was conducted on an intact, 2,000-year-old Roman medicinal pill discovered in the Relitto del Pozzino, a 2,000-year-old sunken ship off the coast of Tuscany. The shipwreck was located near the Etruscan city of Populonia, a significant Mediterranean Sea trade hub (Mosquera 2019). The excavation, carried out in the 1980s and 90s, uncovered various items, including lamps, glass bowls, bronze jugs, and a medicine chest containing surgical tools, 136 wooden drug vials, and tin vessels with medicinal tablets (Mosquera 2019). These tin vessels remained sealed, preserving the pills. The 2013 chemical analysis revealed that the tablets contained zinc compounds, iron oxide, starch, beeswax, pine resin, and plant-derived materials, suggesting they were used as eye medicine (Mosquera 2019). This discovery and chemical analysis provided valuable evidence and insight into medicinal history.  

Figure 2. Image of tin vessel containing medicinal pills in the Relitto del Pozzino. Photograph by Enrico Ciabatti.

In southern Greece, the site of Pavlopetri, previously explored in the late 1960s, gained renewed archaeological significance in 2009 due to advanced technological methods (Smith 2009). Dating back 5,000 years, Pavlopetri is recognized as the oldest known submerged city. While older underwater settlements exist, Pavlopetri stands out due to its distinct urban characteristics (Smith 2009).

Figure 3. Image of the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Pavlopetri. Photograph by Nikos Pavlakis/Alamy Stock Photo.

Learn more about Palopetri: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/oct/16/lost-greek-city-atlantis-myth

The field of underwater archaeology offers new insights and discoveries concerning ancient civilizations, including their economic activities and medical practices. It plays a crucial role in comparing and tracing the evolution of human societies over time.


Archaeological Institute of America. “Diving into History – The Latest Underwater Discoveries .” Diving into history – the latest underwater discoveries – Archaeology Magazine Archive, 2009. https://archive.archaeology.org/0907/underwater/.

Blakemore, Erin. “Underwater Archaeology Facts and Information.” Culture, May 3, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/underwater-archaeology.

Mosquera, Miguel. “The Five: Underwater Discoveries.” The Guardian, April 7, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/07/the-five-underwater-discoveries-archaeology-ancient-civilisations-lost-worlds.

Smith, Helena. “Lost Greek City That May Have Inspired Atlantis Myth Gives up Secrets.” The Guardian, October 16, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/oct/16/lost-greek-city-atlantis-myth.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is Lidar.” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, October 1, 2012. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lidar.html#:~:text=Lidar%2C%20which%20stands%20for%20Light,variable%20distances.