Multiple tombs and a 14th-century sarcophagus have been unearthed during works to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral following a devastating fire.
The burial sites “of remarkable scientific quality” were discovered by archaeologists while repairs were being made to a central spire, France‘s culture ministry announced late Monday.
Among the find was a “completely preserved, human-shaped sarcophagus made of lead” thought to be for a senior dignitary in the 1300s – more than a century after the cathedral was constructed.
Archaeologists also found bits of painted sculptures beneath the the cathedral floor, which have been identified as parts of the original 13th-century rood screen – an architectural piece separating the altar area from the nave.
The team also carefully dug out a pair of carved hands.
The bust of a bearded man and some sculpted vegetables, with traces of paint still visible, has also been removed.
Archaeologists already used a mini endoscopic camera to peek inside the sarcophagus, which appeared to be warped by the weight of the earth and stones.
“You can glimpse pieces of fabric, hair and above all a pillow of leaves on top of the head, a well-known phenomenon when religious leaders were buried,” said Christophe Besnier, the lead archaeologist.
“The fact that these plant elements are still inside means the body is in a very good state of conservation.”
The prize find is expected to help us improve our understanding of funeral practices in the Middle Ages.
The discoveries were made as reconstruction teams prepared to install huge scaffolding to rebuild the spire, and needed to check the stability of the ground.
In the process, they discovered an underground heating system from the 19th century, with the sarcophagus lying among its brick pipes.
Despite the excitement of the find, the clock is ticking for the archaeologists.
They have been given until March 25 to finish their work before the reconstruction project resumes – in order to keep to a planned reopening of the cathedral in 2024.
The Notre Dame fire shocked France, with tearful Parisians and stunned tourists watching in disbelief as the blaze sent the cathedral’s spire crashing down in April 2019.