The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2021 (photo by Jeanne Menjoulet via Flickr)

Archaeological excavation at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has unearthed several tombs and a leaden sarcophagus thought to date from the 14th century, France’s Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot announced in a statement on Monday. Excavation work is taking place ahead of the reconstruction of the church’s spire after a 2019 fire threatened to engulf the cathedral whole. The discoveries were made right beneath the intersection of the church’s transept and its main body.

Bachelot specified in her statement that the remains were found in “remarkable scientific quality.” Archaeologists speculate that the coffin — which visibly appears to have been dented by the weight of centuries of compression by earth and stones — contains the remains of an important church dignitary. A miniature endoscopic camera was used to peer inside the sarcophagus, which allowed researchers to detect pieces of fabric, hair, and a pile of leaves resting on the head of the deceased — a typical funerary practice for religious figures. 

“The fact that these plant elements are still inside means the body is in a very good state of conservation,” Christophe Besnier, lead archaeologist on the team, told the Guardian

In addition to the tombs and coffin, archaeologists have also identified parts of painted sculptures such as pieces from an original 13th-century rood screen, a decorative partition between the altar and the rest of the nave that is a common feature of late medieval church architecture. Agence France-Presse reported in a visit to the site of the excavation that archaeologists could be seen removing a bust of a bearded man and “sculpted vegetables” from the earth. Also uncovered in the excavation was a subterranean heating system serviced by brick pipes dating from the 19th century.

The conclusion of the excavation project, set for March 25, heralds the resumption of reconstruction work on the spire, which is to be completed in 2024, in time for the Summer Olympics in Paris. 

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.