A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Exploring Notre Dame's Hidden Past
The devastating 2019 fire is providing an unprecedented look at the secrets of the great cathedral
The 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.
For 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.”
Layers of History
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Connected by craft in the deep past