The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was supposedly built over the cave where Jesus was buried. Over the years, water seeping from the dome down into the shrine below has eroded the iron clamps that hold the 19th century structure together, causing cracks to form in the walls and the stones at its base to shift. Scholars have taken advantage of this by poking a tiny fiber-optic video camera down between the cracks and have discovered earlier shrines below it.

“The way a doctor uses an endoscope to look down one’s tummy, we used the same thing, except it was an industrial endoscope,” says Martin Biddle, professor of medieval archaeology at the University of Oxford. “We could look in and see there were earlier structures inside.”

The Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in 314 AD, sent engineers to the Holy Land to build churches in the places where important Christian events had taken place. Biddle thinks that they knew which tomb had contained Jesus’ body because early Christians had marked the grave withgraffiti. They often marked holy sites with secret symbols that were unknown to the Romans. The tomb of Saint Peter, found under the Vatican in Rome, is scratched with the Greek letters for X and R, a sign early Christians used for Christ.

Scholars believe that 4 shrines, including the one standing today, were built at the spot. Older shrines, dating from as early as 325 AD, are mentioned in ancient manuscripts, but it was assumed that they had all been destroyed by fire or neglect. “If it were taken apart very carefully, like peeling an onion, one could see the various periods,” says Rev. JeromeMurphy-O’Connor.

Lacking proper support, the stones in the current shrine have begun to move. This was made worse by an earthquake in 1927. Steel scaffolding has been erected to hold the shrine together, but it is still shifting. “What they should do is tear it down,” says Murphy-O’Connor. “Then, any archaeologistcould work back from the 19th century [shrine] to the 16th century one, to the medieval one. When that is done, we’d be left with the [original] rock.”The three Christian denominations that oversee the church-Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox-would have to agree for this to be done.

The Rev. Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan monk, says, “Certainly, the Franciscans would like to have a look. There are things under there that would be worth seeing.”

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