The Notre-Dame de Paris Sarcophagi Reveal Their First Secrets

December 15, 2022

Last March and May, during authorized excavations before the installation of an over-700 ton scaffolding, teams from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) discovered two anthropomorphic lead sarcophagi located at the crossroads of the transept.

The Forensic Institute of Toulouse’s Expertise

The two sarcophagi were then entrusted to the Forensic Institute of Toulouse, already known for its successes in the field of paleo-archaeology, in particular for having analyzed the mummy of Louise de Quengo, discovered in the Jacobins’ convent in Renne in 2013.

It is also in Toulouse where Eric Crubézy resides, a professor of anthropobiology and director of the Molecular Anthropology and Synthetic Imaging Laboratory (AMIS) at the University of Toulouse. He has has already worked on many ancient remains.

Toulouse scientists were responsible for studying the two coffins, opening them and studying the bones of the deceased, as well as any other objects present in the two graves. They were thus able to determine the identity of one of the deceased.

A Knight with Tuberculosis

The sarcophagus discovered first, in March, dates from “between the 14th and the end of the 17th century” according to the estimates of Christophe Besnier, the archaeologist responsible for the excavations. The man it contains was embalmed, but his identity has not yet been established.

According to Professor Crubézy, the man would be “between 25 and 40 years old,” and he adds, “he practiced horse riding from a young age.” Lastly, “he had a slight cranial deformation” and probably tuberculosis, the professor explained during a press conference in Toulouse.

He was probably a wealthy notable, because “only 4% of the nobility … had the possibility of being embalmed or having a lead coffin,” he specified. Moreover, its presence at the crossing of the transept of the cathedral probably marks a high social status. It is necessary to wait for more precise dating and to consult the burial registers to make an identification.

A “Jubilee Canon”

The second sarcophagus contained an epitaph, as well as medals and a plaque mentioning Canon Antoine de La Porte. He died in 1710 at the age of 83. He was a prelate whose portrait is kept in the Louvre. “Here is the body of Sir Antoine de la Porte, canon of the church (word erased), who died on December 24, 1710 in his 83rd year. Requiescat in pace,” so reads the epitaph on an engraved bronze plaque.

These indications have made it possible to recognize the “Jubilee Canon,” so nicknamed for having held office at Notre-Dame de Paris for more than 50 years, states Sciences et Avenir. He was buried with the remains of the medieval rood screen of the cathedral. In particular, he contributed to Louis XIII’s desired redevelopment of the choir.

The crossing of the transept was a very popular place with notables and canons, recalled Christophe Besnier. “More than 300 people were buried in Notre-Dame,” but this type of burial was “reserved for an elite” because “lead was very expensive.”

After a period of two years which will allow the studies on the sarcophagi to be completed, Inrap will hand them over to the Ministry of Culture. The remains could then be reinterred. In any case, this is the hope of the clergy of the cathedral.