After more than 15 years of study, experts are laying out the evidence revealing how far back the history goes for the room-sized shrine in Jerusalem that’s revered as Jesus’ tomb.
Spoiler alert: There’s no “Jesus Was Here” graffiti on the walls.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the point of the research. Instead, archaeologists were taking advantage of a conservation effort at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s holiest sites, to look inside the shrine known as the Edicule (which is Latin for “little house”).
Tradition states that the first version of the Edicule was built into the limestone cave during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Constantine wanted to dress up the site to celebrate the place where Jesus’ body was thought to have been laid after his crucifixion.
Christians believe that Jesus’ resurrection took place at the tomb on the first Easter Sunday.
Over the centuries, the Edicule has been through many changes — including the destruction of the church above it in the year 1009 as well as subsequent fires, earthquakes and remodelings. Reconstructions added layers of embellishments that turned the “little house” into the archaeological equivalent of a nested doll.
Some historians have suggested that the Roman-era Edicule was completely destroyed in the 11th century and had to be re-created from scratch. And some believers revere a different cave, known as the Garden Tomb, as an alternate candidate for Jesus’ resting place.
A little more than a year ago, during a project to restore and repair the Edicule, researchers finally got the chance to study and sample layers of construction material — going all the way down to a broken marble slab that was marked with a cross and rested on the original cave’s limestone.
The remains of the slab retained traces of the mortar that was originally used to secure it in place. National Geographic said the Edicule restoration team took samples of the mortar and subjected them to tests that use optically stimulated luminescence to determine when the quartz sediment was last exposed to light.
Those tests suggested that the mortar was put in place around the year 335, which matches the story of Roman-era construction. “Obviously that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did,” archaeologist Martin Biddle told National Geographic. “That’s very remarkable.”
The dates derived from other samples seem to trace different phases in the Edicule’s evolution, including the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher after 1009 and a major restoration in the 16th century.
“It is interesting how mortars not only provide evidence of the earliest shrine on the site, but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule,” National Geographic quoted restoration team leader Antonia Moropoulou as saying.
The team’s scientific results are to be published by the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
“Secrets of Christ’s Tomb” premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday. An exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., titled “Tomb of Christ,” features an immersive 3-D virtual-reality experience of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.