Believers say it is the tomb where Jesus was buried after His crucifixion. Now, for the first time, experts appear to have confirmed a key element of the Christian narrative of its history. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Basilica of the Resurrection, has given up some of its ancient secrets.
Researchers sampled mortar taken from between the original limestone surface of the burial bed, where religious followers say Christ was laid to rest, and a marble slab that covers it.
The test proves that the marble was installed around 345 AD, which ties in to historical accounts that the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, ordered the tomb be enshrined in a new church.
Constantine took this decision after his envoys discovered the tomb beneath an older temple, dedicated to the goddess Venus, in around 326 AD.
Scientists have now dated the age of the tomb using two brick samples taken from the structure.
Mortar samples from remains of the cave’s southern wall were dated to 335 and 1570 AD.
Researchers used a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to make their finding.
The method allows scientists to date ancient stone by measuring when sediment was most recently exposed to light. When sediments are buried or blocked from sunlight, natural background radiation results in energy being stored in minerals such as quartz.
If the mineral grains are not exposed to light the energy builds up and represents the amount of time since their burial. Scientists can then measure the stored energy in the laboratory and pinpoint when the layers of mortar last saw sunlight.
Experts took samples of mortar from various locations within the Edicule back in 2016 with the results, as first reported by National Geographic, only now becoming public.
The earliest architectural evidence found in and around the tomb complex until now dates to the era of the Crusades.
This would make it no older than 1,000 years, aligning with the church’s total destruction and subsequent rebuilding in 1009 AD.
But the Athens’ teams dating suggests that the Edicule is a much older structure.
Speaking to National Geographic, Antonia Moropoulou, who directed the Edicule restoration project, said: ‘It is interesting how [these] mortars not only provide evidence for the earliest shrine on the site, but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule.’
When the first Holy Roman Emperor Constantine sent representatives of the church to Jerusalem to locate the tomb in around 325 AD, they were directed by people in the region to a Roman temple built 200 years previously.
This was destroyed and the tomb was discovered beneath, carved into a limestone cave.
Constantine ordered that the interior of the tomb be revealed and the Edicule was built around it.
The tomb itself features a long shelf, or burial bed, which Christian tradition says is where Jesus was laid to rest, following his crucifixion. This is surrounded by a marble covering, thought to have been installed at a much later date, potentially as late as 1555 AD.