Excavations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher unearth layers of rock from the time of Constantine

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Italian archaeologists working on the excavation and conservation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem announced this week that they had discovered layers of rock from the quarry used to build the original Constantinian-era church. In the early 4th century CE, the New Christian Constantine commissioned the construction of a basilica and additional structures. This was in order to encompass the sacred Christian sites of Golgotha, where Christ was believed to have been crucified, and Anastasis, where Christ was buried.

New dig finds offer exciting insight into how early churches built during the period known as Late Antiquity were made while revealing insight into one of Christianity’s holiest sites.

Archaeologists have found fragments of the quarry used to build the original church. (photo via Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The current excavations are led by an archaeological team from the Department of Antiquities of the Università degli Studi di Roma (known as La Sapienza), led by Francesca Romana Stasolla and assisted by Giorgia Maria Annoscia and Massimiliano David. A statement from the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (“Custody of the Holy Land”), the Franciscan order that oversees the site, notes that around the basilica’s north wing, the stratigraphic layers reveal the extreme irregularity of the elevations that the original architect and builders had to deal with.

This compelled the Constantinian masons, builders and craftsmen to fill the uneven layers with earth and porous ceramics which would also allow the drainage of water. Only once they were level could career tessellation be set up. Archaeologists have also found mosaic pieces, tesserae, reminiscent of the original decoration.

Excavations also unearthed mosaic pieces, known as tesserae. (photo via Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Analysis of the northern boundary wall of the Holy Sepulcher and the methods used to build the church confirm a number of details previously known mainly from literary sources. From 325 or 326 CE, Emperor Constantine commissioned his architect, Zenobius, to build a large basilica-style church in Roman Jerusalem. Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop present at the eventual dedication of the complex as the “Church of the Holy Cross” in September 335 CE, is our main literary source. In his biography Constantine’s life, he wrote much of what we know of the original church.

The bishop said that in the second century AD, the site was covered with statues of the Roman goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks). It was probably a temple built for Venus or for the goddess of luck, named Tyche. Erected in 135 or 136 CE by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, all the marble and the floor were ordered by Constantine to be stripped and carried off the site so as not to desecrate it. This thorough stripping and remodeling of the site before construction appears consistent with what archaeologists are now finding.

The Constantinian-era basilica in Jerusalem as depicted in the large mosaic nicknamed the ‘Map of Madaba’ from around 565 CE, from St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan (via Wikimedia)

Archaeological knowledge of the basilica from the Constantinian era is scarce. There are written mentions of the basilica from 4th-century Christian pilgrims and later writers such as Jerome, who visited and wrote about it. He is also depicted on the 6th century mosaic in Jordan known as the ‘Map of Madaba’. However, in 614 CE, the Sassanid king Khosrow II ordered his general, Shahrbaraz, to enter Jerusalem and sack the city, taking away the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified). Later Christian sources attributed the discovery of the True Cross to Constantine’s mother, Helena, and thus linked the True Cross, Constantine, and the church together. During this 7th century sack, a fire severely damaged the original Constantinian complex, but it was later repaired by a bishop named Modestus.

These repairs took place just before the surrender of Jerusalem to Caliph Umar, who promised to protect non-Islamic peoples and holy sites in the city. The original basilica was only ordered destroyed in 1009, when a Fatimid Caliph ordered the destruction of holy sites for Jews and Christians in the city and elsewhere. Much of what we see of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher today is what the Crusaders, who briefly recaptured the city in 1099, would rebuild. These mid-twelfth-century restorations are well known, but new excavations in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now promise to shed light on the original materials, dimensions and various spaces of the ancient building from Late Antiquity. .

Drawing of the Holy Sepulcher complex in Jerusalem by Saint Adamnan (c. 680 CE) and later transmitted in an early medieval manuscript, From Locis Sanctis (“Concerning Sacred Places”) now held at the National Library of France (image via Library of Congress)

Much of the current reconstruction effort involves processing and compiling excavation records. Professor Romana Stasolla’s laboratory at La Sapienza in Rome is currently engaged in a massive digitization project of archaeological data collected in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As efforts continue into the fall on this part of the new excavations, the team is engaged in processing photogrammetric scans of the remains, archiving photos, analyzing finds and compiling decades of data from searches in a larger database.

This digital humanities project will no doubt be a valuable tool in revealing the story of a site that remains a sacred yet mysterious puzzle piece in the larger history of Christianity. The latest discoveries of the original Roman pavements constitute essential evidence for the reconstruction of the construction methods and mosaic decorations used by architects and building workers in the churches of the late Roman Empire.

Martha J. Finley