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Exploring Notre Dame's Hidden Past

The devastating 2019 fire is providing an unprecedented look at the secrets of the great cathedral


Friday, April 07, 2023

Notre Dame Nave DebrisThe first major fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral burned through an August night more than 800 years ago. At the time, cathedral fires were not uncommon—the structures were tinderboxes of dry wood, textiles, hanging lamps, and burning candles. The twelfth-century chronicler Guillaume le Breton records that the inferno started when a thief broke into the cathedral’s attic and, using ropes and hooks in an attempt to steal the candlesticks, set the silk hangings alight. Over the following centuries, there were almost certainly many more fires, but none as catastrophic as the one that began in the attic and engulfed the building on April 15, 2019. The cause of that conflagration remains uncertain; an electrical short circuit or damaged electrical cable in use during restoration efforts taking place at the time are the possible culprits.


Notre Dame MapFor 15 hours, flames reaching nearly 1,200°F ate away at a large part of the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof, which crashed onto the stone vaulting that forms its ceiling. The nineteenth-century spire that topped the building broke apart when the lead coating meant to protect it melted. The weight of the debris caused a ceiling vault to collapse, sending huge piles of burned wood and broken stone down to the marble floor of the nave. When the fire was finally extinguished, the scene was one of complete devastation and the atmosphere one of extreme concern. Parisians, along with those watching from around the world, wondered if the building was structurally sound, if the cathedral’s spectacular stained-glass windows had survived, and if Notre Dame, which has been called the soul of the city—and of France—could ever be rebuilt.


The fire pared Notre Dame to its core, but the destruction is providing an unprecedented chance for scholars to investigate its history and reimagine its future. For archaeologists, the bent iron, burned roof timbers, and shattered stonework provide an opportunity to study a building that, despite its religious, architectural, and historic significance, is, in fact, poorly understood. Over time, the cathedral was modified to accommodate the requirements of a growing staff of clergy and an expanding congregation, as well as the increasing number of visitors to a building not designed for mass tourism, obscuring its medieval origins. Since the nineteenth-century renovation by architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, there has been little opportunity to study the cathedral’s archaeological record.


Archaeologists and other specialists removed, sorted, and inventoried the collapsed remains from late April 2019 to spring 2021, after which the artifacts were transferred to rented warehouses in the northeast of Paris where they are available for study. What researchers have collected is considerable—about 10,000 pieces of wood, 650 pallets of stone, and 350 pallets of metal. “It’s impressive to have Notre Dame right there in front of us,” says archaeologist Dorothée Chaoui-Derieux of the French Ministry of Culture. “There is a certain emotion to have at hand blocks of stone that were previously more than 100 feet up and about which little was known, or all this wood, some of which dates to the thirteenth century and still smells like burning from the fire.”

Notre Dame Excavation Preview
Layers of History

Paradise Lost

Archaeologists in Nova Scotia are uncovering evidence of thriving seventeenth-century French colonists and their brutal expulsion


Monday, April 11, 2022

Acadia Grand Pre FieldsStarting in the early seventeenth century, the French began settling the colony of Acadia—which stretched across what is now Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and south into Maine—where they established a number of prosperous agricultural communities. A key to their success was a system of dikes they created, particularly in Nova Scotia, that allowed water to drain out of the marshes but prevented seawater from flowing back in. Once rain washed the salt away from this reclaimed land, it became extremely fertile thanks to the rich organic material that had been deposited by the tides over thousands of years. The great quantity of peas, wheat, and other grains, as well as livestock, which the Acadians consumed and exported, helped fuel population growth that is among the fastest ever recorded in human history, up to 4.5 percent per year. Between 1710 and 1730, the Acadian population doubled and then doubled again by 1755, when it reached around 14,000. The Acadians’ ambitious land reclamation project reached its apogee at Grand Pré, or “great meadow,” a village founded by a group of extended families around 1682. Grand Pré overlooked a vast expanse of marshland abutting the Minas Basin, home to the highest tides in the world, which can rise more than 50 feet. The Acadians’ expertise allowed them to tame the tides and transform this salt marsh into robust farmland.


Acadia MapIn part because they created their own agricultural land, the Acadians had friendly, collaborative relationships with the Indigenous Mi’kmaq. In a place with such plenty, there was no need to compete for resources. There were even a significant number of marriages between the groups, which was unheard of in the New England colonies to the south, where Native peoples and Europeans were, at best, wary of each other. Heavily influenced by the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians developed a social structure based on communal cooperation that contrasted starkly with the rigid hierarchy they had known in France. This communal spirit was particularly helpful in organizing and carrying out the hard labor necessary to build and maintain the monumental dikes that held back the tides. “In France, if you were a peasant, you were under a nobleman’s control and had no real freedom,” says Rob Ferguson, a retired Parks Canada archaeologist. “When the colonists came to Acadia, they suddenly had control of their own lives. They had their own farms and they could sell their crops. There was intermarrying between levels of society that would never have happened in France. In a way, they really did have a paradise.”


Regardless of their successes, the Acadians were repeatedly caught up in the geopolitical rivalry between France and Britain, with control of Nova Scotia passing back and forth between the two empires multiple times. The Acadians endeavored to remain neutral, resisting attempts by both sides to win their fealty. They cultivated profitable trade relations with New England merchants, whom at least one source records they dubbed nos amis les ennemis, or “our friends the enemy.” Over time, the Acadians came to see themselves as an independent creole people, native to their new land and no longer bound to their home country. They would raise the French or English flag depending on whose gunships were coming to pay a visit. When the British took control of Nova Scotia for good in 1713, the French tried to entice the Acadians to move to Île Royale, modern-day Cape Breton Island, but most remained where they were, reasoning that the British were more likely to leave them alone. They were mistaken, however, and their position grew increasingly precarious. Suspicious of the Acadians because they were Catholic and friendly with the Mi’kmaq, British representatives pressured them to pledge an unconditional oath of allegiance to the Crown. The Acadians managed to fend off their demands for several decades, in no small measure because local British forces depended on their crops for sustenance.

Sidebar Louisiana Bayou Teche
From Acadian to Cajun

A Monumental Imperial Biography

How Constantine’s architects pieced together the past to create a new vision in the heart of Rome


Thursday, February 10, 2022

Constantine Rome Arch of ConstantineFor the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine the Greatest, pious blessed Augustus, because by inspiration of divinity, in greatness of his mind, from a tyrant on one side and from every faction of all on the other side at once, with his army he avenged the republic with just arms, the Senate and Roman People (SPQR) dedicated this arch as a sign for his triumphs.—Dedicatory inscription, Arch of Constantine, Rome


Constantine Rome Arch Victory InscriptionThe pinnacle of an ancient Roman general’s or emperor’s military career was to be awarded the right to parade through the streets of Rome to celebrate his victories on the battlefield and flaunt the spoils of war in an extravagant display known as a triumph. During these grand spectacles, Romans watched as senators clad in brilliant white togas trimmed in purple made their way through crowded, noisy streets, followed by trumpeters and scores of other musicians, bulls to be slaughtered for feasts, and exotic animals captured in far-off conquered lands. Shackled prisoners, many of whom would later be executed, were hauled through the city, and heaping mounds of booty—gold and silver, marble statues, and more—were piled high on wagons pulled by draft animals. People craned their necks as the victorious general rode by in a four-horse chariot covered in laurel, the symbol of victory, holding a scepter and wearing a purple tunic, a decorated gold toga, a laurel wreath, and a gold crown. He was followed by his troops, whom ancient sources describe as singing loudly and shouting victory chants. Celebrating great military victories did not always end there. On occasion, the Senate also voted to build a monumental arch to celebrate the commander’s conquests. There were once 57 triumphal arches in Rome and more across the empire. Yet little is known about the vast majority of these monuments from contemporaneous or later sources, and no remains of them survive. Only three of the city’s triumphal arches still exist, the largest of which is the Arch of Constantine.


The arch celebrates the emperor Constantine’s (r. A.D. 306–337) victory over the usurper Maxentius (r. A.D. 306–312) at the Milvian Bridge just outside Rome on October 28, A.D. 312. For six years, the two had reigned as co-emperors. This battle brought an end to nearly a century of civil war and cemented Constantine’s place as the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Sole rulership of the Eastern Empire would come 12 years later, at which time he became the ruler of the entire empire. The monument rises 69 feet high and measures 85 feet wide, and its decorations represent three centuries of imperial history. It has long been clear to scholars that much of the arch’s sculpture came from monuments dedicated to the earlier emperors Trajan (r. A.D. 98–117), Hadrian (r. A.D. 117–138), and Marcus Aurelius (r. A.D. 161–180). Other decorative elements of the arch were created at the time it was built. These include the dedicatory inscription along the top of both sides of the structure, as well as the winged victory figures flanking the central passageway and several reliefs inside the central passageway, some of which depict the sun god, Sol. The monument was topped by a gilded bronze statue of the emperor in his chariot.

The Last King of Babylon

Investigating the reign of Mesopotamia’s most eccentric ruler


Sunday, March 13, 2022

NabondiusBabylonRuinsThe fall of an empire in antiquity was usually the result of complex, interconnected factors that lay beyond the scope of any one person’s control. Nonetheless, traumatized contemporaries and later historians alike have often laid the fault at the feet of a single individual. “It’s the last ruler who is usually blamed for an empire’s downfall,” says University of Toronto Assyriologist Paul-Alain Beaulieu. The enigmatic Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus seemed destined for just such a fate after the Persian armies of Cyrus the Great marched through Babylon’s gates in October 539 B.C. By deposing Nabonidus, whose reign was marked by eccentric political and religious choices, the Persians ensured that he would be the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539 B.C.) and the last native-born Mesopotamian king. For some 2,500 years, Mesopotamian cities, states, and empires had been ruled by their own, or by outsiders who adopted their ways. But after Nabonidus (r. 556–539 B.C.), the region was conquered by a series of foreign empires before Mesopotamia’s great ancient cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Babylon finally withered away. Many sources from antiquity cast Nabonidus as the villain who brought about the downfall of Babylon, and by extension, Mesopotamia. “He was a controversial figure,” says Beaulieu, “and perhaps a tragic one.” Today, some scholars believe that, despite being variously portrayed in ancient texts as a mad usurper and a heretic whose apostasy doomed an empire, Nabonidus may, in fact, have simply been a difficult personality with a singular political vision whose reign was cut short before he could realize his ambitions.  


Nabonidus Stela Ur WhiteEver since Assyriologists, who specialize in translating Mesopotamian cuneiform documents, mostly in the form of clay tablets, first began to read Neo-Babylonian records excavated in the late nineteenth century, Nabonidus has stood out as an unusual ruler. While the record is fragmentary, cuneiform tablets and inscriptions have helped scholars trace Nabonidus’ unconventional career. A palace courtier, Nabonidus came to power in his 50s or 60s by way of a coup that may have been orchestrated by his son Belshazzar, who plays a central role in the Bible’s Book of Daniel. In this biblical account, Nabonidus, who is mistakenly identified as his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605–562 B.C.), is described as a mad king obsessed with dreams. According to the Book of Daniel, the king leaves Babylon to live in the wilderness for seven years. This depiction overlaps somewhat with Nabonidus’ own inscriptions, in which he emphasizes that he was an especially pious man who paid heed to dreams as the divine messages of the gods. Nabonidus was also infamous in antiquity for abandoning Babylon for 10 years to live in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, where he established a kind of shadow capital at the oasis of Tayma. This was a strange and unprecedented move for a Mesopotamian ruler.  


Nabonidus was also known for his near-fanatical devotion to the moon god, Sin, whom he raised to the status of the most important deity in the Babylonian pantheon. This came at the expense of Marduk, Babylon’s longtime patron god, whom earlier Neo-Babylonian kings had promoted as the empire’s chief deity. Some scholars believe that by elevating Sin, a god whose main temples lay outside the city of Babylon, Nabonidus was perhaps attempting to unite a large and diffuse empire under the worship of a god who held more appeal than Marduk to people throughout the realm. “Nabonidus was a new man, with a new vision of the Babylonian Empire,” says Beaulieu.

Nabonidus White Box
Royal Antiquarians

Marduk Standing Stone
Babylon’s God King