It was three years ago in 2019 that the beautiful and iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered a devastating fire that destroyed the roof and damaged many parts of the building, whose original structure dates back to the 13th century. In an effort to make the best of a bad situation, the archeologists brought in to preserve and remove artifacts during the recovery and reconstruction gained access to areas previously unavailable to researchers because they were buried under layers of dirt and floors. One such area was directly underneath the church’s iconic spire which collapsed during the fire. In April of 2022, archeologists announced the discovery of two well-preserved lead sarcophaguses buried 65 feet (20 meters) underground amongst brick pipes from a 19th century heating system. They peeked into one of the coffins with an endoscopic camera and saw a skeleton but did not open it. That task was assigned to the Forensic Institute of the Toulouse University Hospital – experts in opening ancient coffins … especially those made of or lined with lead. This week, they announced what they found, and one revelation was a shocker – one skeleton belonged to a knight … with an elongated skull!
"He had extraordinary teeth for his age. We find this very rarely, and it is clear that he brushed his teeth and took care of them."
Eric Crubézy, professor of biological anthropology at the University of Toulouse, shows how it is the little things that get archeologists the most excited as he comments about the opening of the sarcophagus of Antoine de la Porte – the occupant of one of the two sarcophaguses whose name was conveniently engraved on a plate on one coffin to help identify him.
"This 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. Resquietcat ni pace."
Even without that nameplate, Crubézy could quickly determine that Antoine de la Porte was an important person because of his final resting place in such a prestigious location in the most prestigious cathedral in France. Both coffins were placed in the transept of the church – the perpendicular crosswise part of the cross-shaped building. The Notre-Dame transept separates the nave from the chevet or choir area, making it the heart of the building. According to Sciences et Avenir, which covered the press conference announcing the opening of the coffins, Antoine de la Porte was not just any canon (an honorary title conferred upon a member of the clergy for faithful and valuable service to the church) – he was a "jubilee canon" who had held an office at Notre-Dame for more than 50 years, was a wealthy sponsor of art works now on display at the Louvre Museum, and was also a financier of the renovation of the cathedral's choir, which contributed to his placement there after his death. While there were remnants of his hair burial clothes in the coffin (photos here), it is his skeleton and teeth that really excited the archeologists.
“(His bones should make it possible) to study aging in an elderly subject, of sex and known situation, a rare opportunity.”
As mentioned before, Crubézy was particularly impressed at the dental hygiene practiced by 83-year-old de la Porte back in 1710 – an era not known for meticulous tooth care. More analysis of his skeleton is scheduled to be performed in 2023 under the watchful eye of Dominique Garcia and members of the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research because they are human remains recovered in a church and “not archaeological objects” so they “will be treated with respect from beginning to end.”
“We only know that it is a man between 25 and 40 years old, who seems to have been a horseman from an early age and throughout his life."
Christophe Besnier, scientific manager of the excavation and archaeologist at the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), introduced the mysterious person in the second sarcophagus. Lacking a nameplate like Antoine de la Porte had, the researchers were forced to look for clues to his identity. One big one was the wide shape of his pelvic bones which indicated he was an experienced horseman. In those days, that would probably have made him a knight, so the archeologists nicknamed him “Le Cavalier ” or “the knight.” His sarcophagus was found at the foot of a large cross that was once part of the rood screen – a carved separating wall in the transept between the choir and the nave where the congregation sat for services. The rood screen was both symbolic of the separation between clergy and congregation and a necessary health protection - the congregation was thought to be poor people with diseases … that screen could have been one reason why Antoine de la Porte lived a long and healthy life. While not a clergyman, Le Cavalier was a very important person – his corpse wore a crown of flowers and was embalmed, which was a rarity in Middle Ages. That placed him in the upper class of 14th century France and helped preserve the most unusual physical characteristic of Le Cavalier – his elongated skull.
"(It) could present a slight deformation linked to the wearing of a headdress or a headband during his youngest age, observed on many remains after the Council of Trent (1545-1563)."
Eric Crubézy says the skull of Le Cavalier was separated into two parts during the embalming – the top part was removed and there was space in the sarcophagus for the entire long skull. The “deliberately deformed skull” was not the result of the flora crown but something that was done to Le Cavalier when he was a newborn – like the elongated skulls found in Peru and other countries, his was from someone wrapping his soft young head with a tight cloth band for months until his head was permanently deformed. Could that deformity have inspired Le Cavalier to be an outstanding knight who was honored in death with embalming and a prominent place in Notre-Dame Cathedral? Crubézy isn’t sure – the only hypothesis he presented was that the cause of death may have been from chronic meningitis which is caused by can be caused by organisms such as fungi or Mycobacterium tuberculosis growing in the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain.
The flames that engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019 are proving to be both destructive and enlightening. As the new parts of the building go up, the depths beneath provide new insights into what once stood in this spot. Once again, Notre-Dame is so much more than just a hunchback.