At Large  April 22, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

Scientists to Open 700-Year-Old Notre-Dame Sarcophagus


Still from video by Global News Ancient sarcophagus found under Notre-Dame cathedral amid restorations, uploaded March 15, 2022.

In 2019, the Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in a catastrophic fire that ultimately damaged and destroyed its upper walls, roof, and spire. Even as it burned, devastated onlookers poured in donations. Thus, it did not take long for the Cathedral's rebuild to begin.

Open Access.

The transept, as can be seen in this floor plan of Notre Dame, is the rectangular area that cuts across the primary axis of a cruciform church.

Throughout the ensuing reconstruction efforts—which are scheduled for completion, followed by the Cathedral's reopening, in 2024—workers have come across multiple intriguing cultural artifacts.

This includes an approximately 700-year-old sarcophagus unearthed beneath the transept.

The discovery, announced in a March 14, 2022 press release, is owed in part to the fire-induced collapse of the Cathedral’s vaulted ceiling.

The impact of the collapse revealed a nineteenth-century heating system and, below, layers consisting of the sarcophagus and painted sculpture pieces.

The iron, anthropomorphic sarcophagus was found just 3.3 feet (about 1 meter) below the floor and is in remarkably good condition. Archeologists stumbled across it and the surrounding items during excavation work that Notre Dame officials commissioned as a precautionary stage of reconstruction. This particular phase of digging was conducted in preparation for a rebuild of the Cathedral’s fragile spire.

View from above of the Notre Dame Cathedral's Spire in September, 2013. CC-BY-2.0.

The Notre Dame Cathedral's Spire in September 2013.

View of Notre Dame's spire taken from the Saint Louis bridge during the April 15, 2019 fire.
Wikimedia Commons. Photo by LEVRIER Guillaume.

View of Notre Dame's spire taken from the Saint Louis bridge during the April 15, 2019 fire.

About one month after the discovery was publicly announced, officials issued a statement declaring their intent to open the sarcophagus “very soon.” 

Although the internet quickly flooded with statements of concern—some in regard to ethics, others (often jokingly) in superstition—the archeologists and institutions involved have been very clear about their dedication to ethical procedures and legal guidelines. 

The head of France’s Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP) Dominique Garcia has been particularly explicit in this regard. “A human body is not an archaeological object," he explained. “As human remains, the civil code applies and archaeologists will study it as such."

Currently, scientists believe the remains were those of a ‘high dignitary.’ As archeologist Christophe Besnier told several media outlets, “We're not in just any place, we're on the Island of the Seine, in Notre Dame and in the transept crossing.”

The team of scientists has already seen a portion of the sarcophagus interior via an endoscopic camera. The camera revealed a pillow of leaves, fabric, the upper portion of a skeleton, and a handful of currently unidentified objects.

Closer examination of the remains may provide some new, key information about Notre Dame’s medieval past and the entombed individual—including their gender and prior state of health.

The sarcophagus left the Cathedral on April 12 and is currently being held in an undisclosed, secure location. From there, it will be sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, based in Toulouse. Unfortunately, it remains unclear when precisely this closer look will begin or if the public can expect to hear reports of revelations anytime soon.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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