The results of the exceptional excavation campaign carried out under the floor of the choir of Notre-Dame de Paris were revealed on 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, the tombs and many elements of the medieval rood screen.
Built around 1230, the monumental enclosure which separated the choir from the nave was destroyed at the beginning of the 18th century. During the reign of Louis XIV, the rood screen separating the transept and the choir was demolished. The only remaining parts of the rood screen 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), today called “enclosure of the choir”.
Of this decorated and sculpted wall, only a few elements remained uncovered during the work of Viollet-le-Duc (and preserved in the Louvre) and a few blocks in the lapidary reserves of the cathedral. Thanks to the excavation in progress, several hundred lapidary elements ranging from a few hundred grams to nearly 400 kg have been 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 plant decorations, of the way of representing the faces, the hair, the drapes… indicates that it probably dates from the 13th century.
Unlike those in the Louvre, these fragments are striking in their polychromy, 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 extractable. Archaeologists already know that some fragments are found a little further, under the choir. But this contiguous part of the land, on which there are already huge scaffoldings, is beyond their request.
“Can we go see later, when it’s dismantled?” I hope so”, admits a researcher. “Because once the public returns, no archaeologist will be able to set foot there.”
Burials in churches and cathedrals were practiced throughout the medieval and modern period. During the work of Viollet-le-Duc, the lead coffins discovered in the nave and in the choir mostly belonged to archbishops. Some 400 bodies rest at Notre-Dame.
During the excavation, archaeologists identified and exhumed several tombs. They are organized and do not overlap, which is rare in such a busy space. Their dating is currently estimated between the 14th and 18th centuries. At least four graves in the ground have been identified.
An anthropomorphic lead sarcophagus was also unearthed in the western part of the right-of-way. It’s 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 (ceramic and marble signed).
The excavation which has just been completed has given way to a long period of analysis and study of furniture, organic remains, DNA, materials, stylistics, polychromes, iconographic repertoire, etc.