Archaeologists have exposed the original surface of what is traditionally considered the tomb of Jesus Christ for the first time.
The most venerated site in the Christian world, the tomb today consists of a limestone shelf or burial bed that was hewn from the wall of a cave. Since at least 1555, and most likely centuries earlier, the burial bed has been covered in marble cladding, allegedly to prevent eager pilgrims from removing bits of the original rock as souvenirs.
When the marble cladding was first removed on the night of October 26, an initial inspection by the conservation team from the National Technical University of Athens showed only a layer of fill material underneath. However, as researchers continued their nonstop work over the course of 60 hours, another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface was exposed. By the night of October 28, just hours before the tomb was to be resealed, the original limestone burial bed was revealed intact.
"I'm absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn't expecting this,” said Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence.
"We can't say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades."
"This is the holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen," said Chief Scientific Professor Antonia Moropoulou, who is directing the conservation and restoration of the Edicule.
"While it is archaeological impossible to say that the tomb recently uncovered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the burial site if an individual Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, there is indirect evidence to suggest that the identification of the site by representatives of the Roman Constantine some 300 years later may be a reasonable one." states the report.
Archaeologists have identified more than a thousand such rock-cut tombs in the area around Jerusalem, says archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Jodi Magness. Each one of these family tombs consisted of one or more burial chambers with long niches cut into the sides of the rock to accommodate individual bodies.
"All of this is perfectly consistent with what we know about how wealthy Jews disposed of their dead in the time of Jesus," says Magness. "This does not, of course, prove that the event was historical. But what it does suggest is that whatever the sources were for the gospel accounts, they were familiar with this tradition and these burial customs."
The restoration project for the tomb is driven by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox Churches which have joint control of the site.