The Holy Sepulchre and the challenge of studying holy sites
Excavating archaeological sites is rarely easy or straightforward. Many factors can drastically hamper or even block an excavation. In the archaeology of the Holy Land, one frequent issue that arises is the continued use of historical and archaeological sites, especially religious ones, such as Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Archaeological projects are exceedingly rare in the Holy Sepulchre and even when excavations can happen, researchers face a slew of challenges. Now, a recent project that successfully carried out work in the Holy Sepulchre has outlined the challenges they faced as well as the solutions they came up with to solve them.
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The joint British and Israeli team set out to study the thousands of small crosses carved into the wall of the Chapel of St. Helena, one of the oldest sections of the Holy Sepulchre. According to tradition, these crosses were carved into the walls by medieval pilgrims. Among their objectives was to “investigate whether these graffiti were made randomly by different pilgrims or, perhaps, the engraving of the crosses was an established ritual action, authorized by the church.” To study this question, the team set out to photograph the walls and combine the photos into a series of three-dimensional images that could be studied in greater detail.
The team got their chance in 2018 when the chapel was closed for renovations. However, they needed to work fast. In the end, the team was allowed only 2 days to conduct their project. The team had to double-check all of their photos on the spot and make any needed adjustments with only the equipment they had with them. They also had to contend with limited space. The project’s work area, located behind the chapel’s apse, was often narrower than 1 foot. The narrow confines, together with poor lighting, caused the team a great deal of difficulty, as most cameras cannot focus properly or photograph large surfaces under such conditions.
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