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

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

The new excavation findings provide an exciting glimpse into how early churches built within the period known as Late Antiquity were carried out while revealing insights into one of the most sacred sites within Christianity.

Archeologists found fragments from the quarry used to build the original church. (photo via Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The current excavations are being directed by an archaeological team from the Department of Antiquities of the Università degli Studi di Roma (known as La Sapienza), headed 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 north aisle of the basilica, the stratigraphic layers reveal the extreme unevenness of the elevations that the original architect and builders had to contend with.

This required the Constantinian masons, builders, and craftsmen to fill in the uneven layers with soil and porous ceramics that would also allow for water drainage. Only once they were level could the quarried pavement be put in place. Archaeologists have also found bits of mosaic, tesserae, that hint at the original decoration.

The excavations also uncovered bits of mosaic, known as tesserae. (photo via Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Analysis of the Holy Sepulchre’s north perimeter wall and the methods used to build the church confirm a number of details previously known predominantly from literary sources. Beginning in 325 or 326 CE, Emperor Constantine commissioned his architect, Zenobius, to build a large church in a basilica style within Roman Jerusalem. Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop present at the eventual dedication of the complex as the “Church of the Holy Cross” in September of 335 CE, is our main literary source. In his biographical Life of Constantine, he penned much of what we know about the original church. 

The bishop said that by the second century CE, the site had been built over with statues of the Roman goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks). This was likely a temple built to Venus or to the goddess of luck, named Tyche. Erected in 135 or 136 CE by the Roman emperor Hadrian, all of the marble and soil was ordered by Constantine to be stripped and carried away from the site so as not to desecrate it. This complete stripping and refashioning of the site prior to building seems in line with what archaeologists are now finding.

The Constantinian-era basilica within Jerusalem as depicted on the large mosaic dubbed the “Madaba Map” dating to around 565 CE, from the Church of Saint George, Madaba, Jordan (via Wikimedia)

Archaeological knowledge of the Constantinian-era basilica is sparse. There are written mentions of the basilica from fourth-century Christian pilgrims and later writers such as Jerome, who visited and wrote about it. It is also depicted on the sixth-century mosaic in Jordan known as the “Madaba Map.” However, in 614 CE, the Sasanian king Khosrow II directed his general, Shahrbaraz, to enter Jerusalem and sack the city, carrying off 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 seventh-century sack, a fire greatly damaged the original Constantinian complex, but it was later repaired by a bishop named Modestus. 

These repairs were just prior to the surrender of Jerusalem to Caliph Umar, who promised to protect the non-Islamic peoples and holy places of the city. The original basilica was not ordered to be destroyed until 1009, when a Fatimid caliph ordered sites holy to both Jews and to Christians be destroyed within the city and elsewhere. Much of what we see of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today is what the Crusaders, who briefly took the city back in 1099, would rebuild. These mid-12th-century restorations are well known, but the new excavations within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now hold the promise of illuminating the earlier late antique building’s original materials, dimensions, and various spaces. 

Drawing of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre complex by Saint Adamnan (ca. 680 CE) and later transmitted in an early medieval manuscript, De Locis Sanctis (“Regarding Sacred Places”) now held at the National Library of France (image via Library of Congress)

A large part 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 for the archaeological data gathered from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As efforts continue into the fall on this portion of the new excavations, the team is engaged in processing photogrammetric scans of the remains, archiving photos, analyzing finds, and compiling decades of excavation data into a larger database.

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

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean.