There's an upside to rebuilding after a fire, as archaeologists at France's Notre Dame cathedral have discovered. In preparation for the monument's new spire, to replace the one burned in 2019, workers will build 100-foot-high scaffolding. But before they do, officials asked archeologists to perform a "preventive dig" under the section of the cathedral floor that will hold it, per the Guardian. Just inches below the floor at the center of the cruciform-shaped cathedral, archaeologists made an "extraordinary" find: there lay tombs from the Middle Ages; a lead sarcophagus possibly dating to the 14th century, which may hold a high-ranking official; and fragments of the cathedral's intricately carved original rood screen.
Only a few pieces of the original rood screen—a divider that once separated the area reserved for the clergy and choir from the congregation—are in Notre Dame's storage and at Paris' Louvre museum, per the Guardian. The rest appears to have been interred under the direction of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who carried out restoration work on the cathedral—and added the spire now being replicated—in the mid-19th century. "Suddenly we had several hundred pieces from small fragments to large blocks including sculpted hands, feet, faces, architectural decorations and plants," says head archaeologist Christophe Besnier, who describes the find as "emotional," per the Guardian.
Some artifacts still hold their color, including a sculpture of what may be a head of a blue-eyed Jesus Christ. "We uncovered all these riches just [4 to 6 inches] under the floor slabs. It was completely unexpected," says Besnier. Additional sections of the rood screen lay beneath the floor in areas outside of the perimeter of the dig, which was carried out on a strict two-month timeline as President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to have the repaired cathedral open to the public by 2024. "We know they are there and won't be damaged. Hopefully, we will be able to uncover them at a later date," says Besnier. Some reports of the finds had surfaced before the public announcement Thursday. The sarcophagus, removed from the cathedral on Tuesday, is to be opened and studied, per AFP. (Read more Notre Dame Cathedral stories.)