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New Discovery Made at Notre Dame Cathedral Following Fire

Photo Credit: Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

A study conducted with materials from the fire-damaged areas of Notre Dame cathedral revealed something astonishing: an architectural technique that was previously believed to have been invented years after the building’s completion. The discovery changes what researchers believed they knew about Gothic-style construction and iron usage in Paris during the 12th century.

The fire provided a unique opportunity

A view of fire at the back of the Notre Dame cathedral at night.
Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in Paris, France. (Photo Credit: Chesnot / Getty Images)

Notre-Dame de Paris is a medieval Catholic cathedral that is a landmark of the city. Construction first began in 1163 and took nearly two centuries to complete, finally wrapping up in 1345. It is one of the finest examples of the French Gothic architectural style in the world. At the time, it was the largest building ever constructed, reaching 104 feet. Ever since its construction, people have flocked to see the beautiful craftsmanship.

On April 15, 2019, disaster struck the long-standing landmark as a fire spread throughout the structure, likely caused by an electrical failure or a lit cigarette. The world watched as for 15 hours, fire consumed the cathedral’s rafters (made from oak), its iconic spire (made of lead), and many other parts of the building. When the fire was finally put out, the cost of restoring Notre Dame to its former glory amounted to a whopping $865 million. The process is still underway and is expected to be completed in 2024.

Researchers discovered a new architectural feature

View of the back of the Notre Dame cathedral with scaffolding.
Notre-Dame Cathedral is seen at sunrise following a major fire on Monday on April 17, 2019, in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the famous spire to collapse. The cause is unknown but officials have said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

For all the destruction caused by the fire, it also gave researchers a unique opportunity to get a closer look at the processes used when the cathedral was built. While investigating, they discovered that the builders had used iron staples to reinforce the stone on load-bearing points in its structure. It was long believed that this kind of engineering was first used in Gothic-style architecture after Notre Dame had been completed, but now it seems the cathedral is the site of the earliest known use of iron staples.

“We believed that these great building yards of the 13th century had invented these construction processes using iron armatures, but now it seems that it all occurred at Notre-Dame,” said Maxime L’Héritier, an archaeologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the study’s lead author, in an email. This would have been a major advancement in engineering and technology at the time.

The team of researchers gathered 12 samples of iron from different points of the cathedral and used radiocarbon dating to uncover more information. “Radiocarbon dating reveals that Notre-Dame de Paris is indisputably the first Gothic cathedral where iron was thought of as a real building material to create a new form of architecture. The medieval builders used several thousand of iron staples throughout its construction,” they said in a statement. They discovered that iron staples were used in the earliest stages of building the church.

The find provides insight into the iron market in Paris

A bottom-up view of the front of Notre Dame cathedral.
View of Notre-Dame in Paris cathedral’s facade, taken the day of a procession and a pilgrimage on the Seine river as part of the Catholic feast of Assumption, 14 August 2006. (Photo Credit: PIERRE VERDY / AFP / Getty Images)

The discovery of the iron staples not only changes our understanding of Gothic architecture in the 12th century, but it also provides a better look at iron use and trade in Paris at this time. From the samples taken from the cathedral, the iron staples appear to have been welded together from different iron pieces with varying origins.

Diving deeper into these samples, new conclusions can be made as to how iron was circulated, traded, and even forged in Paris around the time the cathedral was being built. Additionally, it can help establish a database of iron producers that were active in the area.

More from us: These Historic Homes Were Built Out Of Spite

The fire at Notre Dame caused extensive damage, but it also provided invaluable insight into the practices of construction in Paris centuries ago.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!