Scientists to Exhume 14th-Century Sarcophagus in Notre Dame Cathedral

ancient stone coffin found during post-fire reconstruction

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Workers repairing Notre Dame after a 2019 fire found a sarcophagus. The stone coffin is believed to be up to 700 years old. Forensics experts will soon exhume it.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Over the centuries, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has undergone damage, deterioration, and restorations. Photo by Ana Maria Tone / Shutterstock

Repairs due to a devastating fire three years ago at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are ongoing. Recently, while preparing to fix damage to its spire, workers found a sarcophagus under a mount of earth, mixed in with 14th-century furniture. Scientists have already peeked inside with a small camera, revealing the upper portion of the skeleton within, as well as a pillow of leaves and several objects that couldn’t be identified without fuller inspection.

The sarcophagus has already been removed from the cathedral and will be sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Toulouse.

Paris wasn’t a capital when the cathedral was built, but it was already an important area. In his video series The Cathedral, Dr. William R. Cook, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, describes its historic construction.

No Hunchback Jokes, Please

One could easily believe the cathedral at Notre Dame was built over the mystery sarcophagus, since it was only discovered so recently, but groundbreaking on the cathedral occurred in 1163.

“[Paris] was a political and administrative center of France and became more so over the course of the Middle Ages,” Dr. Cook said. “If we look at Notre Dame, it is on an island in the Seine—the Île de la Cité—and one of the things that it shared on the island was the space dedicated to the palace of the king of France. Today, only small parts of that palace survive and a 13th-century royal chapel survives: Saint Chapelle.”

When it was completed, the bishop of Paris and the king of France lived literally almost across the street from each other. It’s hard to overstate the influence held by these two men, much less the fact that they were neighbors, making the diminutive Île de la Cité an area of great importance.

Speedy Construction

Although no exact date is known, it’s believed that the construction of the cathedral at Notre Dame was finished about a half century after it began, which stood in stark contrast to other construction projects of the time.

“In fact, the whole cathedral was built very quickly, probably in a period of 40 to 50 years—very short—and there was never an interruption in the building because there was so much patronage, in large part from the family of the king, although the clergy of the cathedral were also pretty wealthy,” Dr. Cook said.

For comparison’s sake, another cathedral, in Chartres, features towers that were finished several hundred years apart. Most cathedrals were built on and off; construction would commence for 20 years or so and then the money would run out. In Chartres, merchants helped pay for the cathedral; virtually no such support was required for Notre Dame.

The Revolution and Some Renovations

“In many ways, it doesn’t look a lot like it looked when it was finished at the beginning of the 13th century; of course, that’s true to some extent of all cathedrals, but it’s more so true of Notre Dame,” Dr. Cook said. “In the 18th century, some of the sculpture was removed before the French Revolution along with many of the stained glass windows; more light and bigger doors were the results.

“Then, during the French Revolution, much of the façade and other parts of the cathedral were damaged or destroyed.”

Portions of the Notre Dame Cathedral were restored in the 19th century, clearly bearing a different style than their original look, and more restoration is currently underway.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily