Notre-Dame de Paris: Archaeological Discoveries Underneath the Construction Site

April 28, 2022
An element of the rood screen

The results of the exceptional excavation campaign carried out under the floor of the choir in Notre-Dame de Paris were revealed on Maundy Thursday, April 14, by archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research.

The campaign, carried out from February 2 to April 8, 2022, provided important data on the construction and evolution of the cathedral, tombs, and many elements of the medieval rood screen.

Built around 1230, the monumental enclosure that separated the choir from the nave was destroyed at the beginning of the 18th century. During the reign of Louis XIV, the section of rood screen separating the transept and the choir was demolished. The only sections of the rood screen remaining are along the side walls of the choir, to the north (dating from the 13th century) and to the south (dating from the 14th century), now called the “choir enclosure.”

Of this decorated and sculpted wall, only a few elements remained uncovered during Viollet-le-Duc’s work (and kept in the Louvre) and a few blocks in the lapidary reserves of the cathedral. Thanks to the current excavation, several hundred lapidary elements ranging from several hundred grams to nearly 400 kg were found, buried in the eastern area of ​​the transept.

They come in the form of sculpted and polychrome fragments, figures and religious architectural elements. A first stylistic analysis of the vegetative decorations, of the way of representing faces, hair, draperies... points to the probability its dating from the 13th century.

Unlike those preserved in the Louvre, these fragments are striking in their polychrome, the colors sometimes overlapping with additions, repairs and the application of gold leaf. Their arrangement is of interest to archaeologists because although they were no doubt left in the cathedral for practical reasons, they were nevertheless “buried” there with care.

However, the entire rood screen is not able to be extracted. Archaeologists already know that some fragments lie just a little further away, under the choir. But this contiguous part of the terrain, on which huge scaffolding already sits, is outside their petition.

“Will we be able to go and see later, when it's dismantled? I hope so,” confesses a researcher.” “Because once the public is back, no archaeologist will be able to set foot there.”

Burials in churches and cathedrals has been practiced throughout the medieval and modern period. During Viollet-le-Duc’s work, the lead coffins discovered in the nave and in the choir mostly belonged to archbishops. Some 400 bodies repose in Notre-Dame.

During the excavation, the archaeologists have identified and exhumed several tombs. They are organized and do not overlap, which is rare in such a popular space. Their dating is currently estimated between the 14th and 18th centuries. At least four tombs in the ground have been identified.

An anthropomorphic lead sarcophagus was also unearthed in the western part of the right-of-way. It is in good condition. Its dating and identification remain to be carried out.

The excavation also yielded ceramic furniture very uniformly dated to the 14th century, as well as antique furniture which testifies to the openings of older archaeological layers by the heating ducts (signed ceramic and marble).

The excavation which has just been completed has given way to a long period of analysis and study of the furniture, organic remains, DNA, materials, stylistics, polychromes, iconographic repertoire, etc.