Last March, three years after a monumental fire tore through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, archeologists discovered centuries-old tombs and two lead sarcophagi just beneath the floor slabs of the cathedral’s transept crossing. On December 9, forensic research faculty from the University of Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier identified one of the lead-entombed bodies as 83-year-old religious dignitary Antoine de la Porte, whose likeness can be found in the Louvre’s permanent collection. The group also made strides in analyzing the other body — a young, aristocratic cavalier.
A team of archeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) uncovered the two sarcophagi during the preparatory dig for rebuilding the cathedral’s beloved spire. The team used a miniature endoscopic camera to investigate the interior of one sarcophagus, concluding that the body would be in good condition after identifying fragments of fabric, leaves, and hair.
In November, Inrap sent the two coffins to the Forensic Institute of the Toulouse University Hospital for further analysis. The research team involved remarked that lead tombs were reserved for the elite, and that the placement of the two sarcophagi within the cathedral was significant as they would have been closest to the choir. Unfortunately, despite lead’s knack for preservation, both the sarcophagi were “pierced” in some way, enabling oxygen flow to cause natural decay.
An epitaph inscribed on a brass plaque identified one of the discovered bodies as de la Porte. Alive from 1627 to 1710, the wealthy and influential dignitary provided significant financial contributions toward the Cathedral’s choir enclosure renovation. De la Porte’s remains indicate that he led a mostly sedentary life, and had “extraordinarily good teeth,” according to professor Eric Crubézy, who oversaw the opening of the sarcophagi.
The unidentified body in the second sarcophagus was not as lucky, apparently — Crubézy confirmed that the young aristocrat suffered from a chronic illness that destroyed most of his teeth. It’s been determined that he was an experienced cavalier based on the state of his pelvic bones, and that he was likely embalmed as his skull had been sawed off. Researchers hypothesize that the plant matter found in his tomb is related to embalming, a rare practice at the time. The time of death is not yet clear, but further results will be available in 2023.
The final resting place of both members of the elite has yet to be determined. Dominique Garcia, president of Inrap, believes that there might be a place for them within the reconstructed cathedral.