A sealed sarcophagus discovered beneath the fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is set to be unlocked, French archaeologists announced on Thursday.

We've seen enough movies to put us off poking into mysterious sealed tombs. Mummies. Curses. Too much spooky potential to unleash on 2022. But French scientists, swayed by anthropology and not Hollywood tropes, are going ahead with plans to unlock the sarcophagus discovered below the paving stone floor of Notre Dame last month.

In a statement, Roselyne Bachelot, France’s Culture Minister, said the find is of "remarkable scientific quality," noting the sarcophagus is in surprisingly good condition without any structural damage apart from a few minor cracks.

A medieval sarcophagus discovered in the floor of Notre Dame
The lead sarcophagus discovered in the floor of Notre Dame Cathedral © AFP/Getty Images

What's inside the sarcophagus?

It was discovered alongside several other tombs and objects — buried some 20 meters (65 feet) underground — during restoration work at the fire-damaged cathedral. The tombs likely date back to the 14th century and it's believed the sarcophagus, made of lead, and shaped like a human, may have belonged to a high-ranking church official of the time.

Using an endoscopic camera that was slotted through one of the cracks, scientists have already had a sneak peek inside the tomb and recorded cloth remains and organic matter such as hair and plants, alongside objects that have yet to be identified.

"The fact that these plants are still there indicates that the contents have been very well preserved," Christophe Besnier from France's National Archaeological Institute (INRAP) told reporters via Reuters.

What happens next?

On Thursday, INRAP said the sarcophagus will soon be sent to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Toulouse where carbon dating technology could be employed to learn more about the person and objects inside.

"If it turns out that is in fact a sarcophagus from the Middle Ages, we are dealing with an extremely rare burial practice," Besnier said.

The head of INRAP, Dominique Garcia, told AFP the examination of the sarcophagus will be carried out sensitively and with an anthropological focus rather than an archaeological one, as per French law. It's likely it will be reburied in the cathedral when work is complete.

"A human body is not an archaeological object," he explained. "As human remains, the civil code applies and archaeologists will study it as such."

Archaeologists find antique objects in the floor of Notre Dame Cathedral
Archaeologists have also discovered sculptures, furniture and part of the original rood screen © Julien de Rosa / AFP / Getty Images

Other archaeological finds in Notre Dame

INRAP has been responsible for archaeological digs that support the ongoing restoration project at Notre Dame since the devastating fire of April 2019.

Among tombs, statues, sculptures and medieval ceramic furniture, the team also uncovered painted fragments of the original rood screen during excavation. Built around 1230 and destroyed in the 18th century, the rood screen was an ornate partition that separated the choir from the clergy when mass was in session. Parts of it were discovered earlier by French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century and they are now on display in the Louvre.

Seine in front of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral ©olrat/Shutterstock
Notre Dame Cathedral pictured in 2018, one year before the devastating fire © Shutterstock

When will Notre Dame reopen to the public?

Restoration work is ongoing and the UNESCO world heritage site is expected to open to the public in spring 2024, just in time for the Paris Olympics, according to President Emmanuel Macron. Even though the museum is closed, people can still visit Notre Dame's square, which overlooks the crypt and the cathedral’s entrance.

Meanwhile, people can engage with the famous Gothic cathedral through an augmented reality exhibit in Paris at the Collège des Bernardins. The same exhibit is also on show in the US at the National Museum Building in Washington, DC. The exhibit, titled Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition, opens today and runs through Monday, September 26, 2022.

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