Three years ago, the world watched in horror as a fire engulfed Paris’ beloved Notre Dame Cathedral. Restoration work began swiftly thereafter and, almost immediately, yielded incredible discoveries in the depths of the church.
Two lead sarcophagi were salvaged from an ancient graveyard, inspiring speculation over who—or what—they contained. After months of research, French archaeologists have revealed the identities of the entombed.
The sarcophagi respectively hold the remains of a high-ranking clergyman who led a largely sedentary life, according to an inscription on his coffin, and a young nobleman who likely suffered from chronic illness before his death.
Last month INRAP, France’s national archaeological research institute, transferred the coffins to the University of Toulouse III, whose experts analyzed their contents.
The identity of the priest is Antoine de la Porte, who died in 1710 at age 83. A wealthy man, he financed Notre Dame’s choir, among other projects, which could explain his burial in a central location below the church’s transept—traditionally reserved for elite members of the church.
According to a statement from the University of Toulouse, de la Porte’s remains—including his bones, head and beard hair, and textiles—are well preserved, despite the general decay caused by oxygen seeping into the coffin.
His teeth were in good shape, but his body showed little evidence of physical activity, meaning he was probably seated for most of his lifetime. His big toe showed signs of gout, an inflammatory disease nicknamed the “disease of kings” since it’s easily triggered by excessive eating, drinking, and lack of exercise.
The second lead sarcophagus held the remains of an anonymous man who died between the ages of 25 and 40 and likely lived before de la Porte’s lifetime. Archaeologists have dubbed the man “Le Cavalier” (“The Horse Rider”), believing he was an aristocrat as his pelvic bones suggest avid horseback riding. He was buried with the remains of leaves and flowers, maybe from a wreath or crown, and appears to have been embalmed. An analysis of his bones suggest he was sick for years, possibly from a chronic meningitis that was caused by tuberculosis.
Scientists at the forensic institute at the Toulouse University Hospital used medical imaging equipment technology to glean information from the coffins’ contents. Further analyses are underway, as they search for the men’s birthplaces and the definitive causes of their deaths. In the meantime, restoration efforts on the cathedral continue with an expected date of completion in 2024.