The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, possibly founded in early 4th century AD, has been traditionally related to the two holiest sites in Christianity. The first site entails the very spot where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, while the second site encompasses the empty tomb of Jesus where he was buried and resurrected. Pertaining to the latter site, this spot was later covered by a shrine – which according to legend, was built by the Romans, after Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (who ruled from circa 306-337 AD), discovered the tomb around the year 327 AD. And now, researchers have confirmed that the tomb structure is indeed around 1700-years old, which makes the result more-or-less consistent with the traditional beliefs.
Now before we proceed, we should mention that the study was not directed towards gathering evidence of Jesus being actually buried in the spot. However, on the historical side of affairs, it does present the possibility of how the Romans, during the reign of Constantine, were intrinsically related to the construction of the shrine – which is also called the Edicule (or Aedicula in Latin). As Antonia Moropoulou, chief scientific coordinator of the restoration works, who is also a specialist in preservation from the National Technical University of Athens, said –
This is a very important finding because it confirms that it was, as historically evidenced, Constantine the Great responsible for cladding bedrock of the tomb of Christ with the marble slabs in the Edicule.
This shrine in question here has been found to show signs of structural weakness and thus is currently in the process of being conserved by a team of scientists supported by the National Geographic Society. In fact, it was during one of these conservation works that the archaeologists were able to access the core area encompassing the tomb of Jesus – which had been sealed by marble slabs that were placed in 1555 AD to potentially safeguard against intruders and visitors. The researchers, in their turn, were able to identify the limestone bed that, according to legend, may have housed the body of Jesus.
The scientists then opted for a state-of-the-art technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) that assessed the mortar from this limestone bed. The OSL gauged when the quartz within the masonry was last exposed to light, and the results (publicly revealed on 28th November) hark back to circa 345 AD, a time period shortly after the demise of Emperor Constantine. Given that this analysis pertains to an estimation, it wouldn’t be a long shot to consider the possibility that the Edicule was finished during the Emperor’s reign.
Interestingly enough, the dating of the mortar material of the shrine also does confirm how the structure was later expanded upon and refurbished by successive cultures, ranging from the Byzantines (Eastern Romans), Crusaders to even the Franciscan friars. And within this extensive time frame, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself went through a series of misfortunes, damages from invaders and earthquakes, and also relentless reconstruction projects under the auspices of both the Fatimids (though funded by the Byzantine Empire) and the later Crusaders.
Lastly, the researchers will publish the full report of their test results in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. On the actual physical front, they are also looking forth to replace the marble cladding with the resilient yet see-through material that would allow the visitors and pilgrims to glimpse into the tomb of Jesus.