Unraveling the Secrets of the Sarcophagi Found Beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral

During the restoration efforts at Notre-Dame Cathedral, archaeologists discovered two mysterious sarcophagi buried under the nave church, which were burned in a fire three years ago. Now, more is known about who they were and the research of months has revealed additional information.

He died at the age of 83, and it was revealed that the man’s identity, Antoine de la Porte, was gleaned from writing on his coffin. The remains of a high priest who died in 1710 were found within the University Hospital of Toulouse, according to a statement from the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP).

The man also showed signs of gout, a painful form of inflammatory arthritis often referred to as a “disease of overindulgence” due to its association with excessive consumption of alcohol and food. According to Kristina Killgrove’s report on LiveScience, the analysis of his remains suggests that he had a sedentary lifestyle and took good care of his teeth. As for his remains, textiles, hair from his beard and head, and bones are all present. However, due to the damaged coffin, which allowed oxygen to enter over the past 300 years, some of these remains have been affected.

Leaf in coffin
The remains of a leaf in the unknown horseman’s coffin Courtesy of Denis Gliksman / INRAP

According to an analysis of his pelvic bones, archaeologists believe that the individual, referred to as “Le Cavalier,” was an equestrian. The second coffin contained an unidentified adult male, estimated to be between 25 and 40 years old, who probably lived in a preceding era.

Scientists speculate that he was a nobleman investigating his burial arrangements. They discovered fragments of foliage and blossoms within the casket, possibly originating from a regal headpiece or floral arrangement. According to Kim Willsher from The Guardian, there are indications that he underwent embalming procedures. As stated by LiveScience, specialists believe he experienced symptoms of a long-term ailment, and it is plausible that he succumbed to chronic meningitis caused by tuberculosis.

The coffin of Le Cavalier seems to have been custom-made to fit his body. This indicates that the two men did not exist during the same era, implying that their coffins are also distinct from one another. It was customary for only the privileged few to be laid to rest in lead sarcophagi, and both men were accorded this honor.

Researchers study sarcophagus
Researchers analyzed the remains inside both coffins to learn more about who was burned under the cathedral. Courtesy of Denis Gliksman / INRAP

Investigators suspect that a cigarette or an electrical problem may be to blame for the fire that broke out at the famous Gothic cathedral, which was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Roughly 500 firefighters tried to control the flames, saving much of the structure from ruin, but the blaze destroyed the wooden roof and spire, causing a collapse.

After the fire, French authorities called in archaeologists from INRAP to make sense of the damage and assist in the efforts of rebuilding. During earlier excavations this year, they came across remains and sculptures, including 13th-century original architecture, statues, and two coffins.

They hope to learn even more about the causes of their deaths and what they ate, including where they were, through further research. In November, scientists at the University Hospital Toulouse transferred the sarcophagi to the forensic institute, using medical imaging equipment and technology to study their contents.

Meanwhile, the restoration efforts at the cathedral persist. With the aim of being ready for the summer Olympics in Paris, the crews aspire to have the remarkable building accessible again by 2024.