Professor helps preserve ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Tags: CEE, Church of the Nativity, Dante Fratta, GLE

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Using state-of-the-art, non-destructive evaluation and underground imaging techniques, Dante Fratta reveals buried secrets without lifting a shovel.

And in summer 2016, Fratta, an associate professor of geological engineering and civil and environmental engineering, was part of international team of experts who used modern methods in an effort to preserve the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Their research, published in a preliminary progress report, Aug. 3, 2016, already has helped prevent an important piece of world history from crumbling.

Located in the center of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction, particularly for Christians, because it is located atop the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been born. But the structure itself is damaged and degraded; in 2008, the World Monuments Fund placed it on a watch list of the 100 most endangered world sites. In 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced plans for a multimillion-dollar restoration effort, the initial phase of which concluded earlier in 2016.

The church’s age—originally built in 339 A.D.—and many additions and iterations also pique archaeologists’ interest. And when a recent excavation came precariously close to undermining the support beneath a structural column within the Church of the Nativity’s Hall of Saint Jerome, Palestinian authorities wisely called a halt to all digging until experts could assess the edifice.

Those experts—a team led by Professor Miguel Pando and hailing from such diverse locales as Portugal, Peru, North Carolina and Wisconsin—traveled to Israel in July 2016 with one primary mission: Measure everything they could about the ancient building in order to protect it from damage. Each person brought unique knowledge and expertise: Together, they spent a week placing sensors, measuring vibrations, scanning surfaces with lasers, and probing beneath the soil with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and seismic waves. They created virtual three-dimensional maps of the hall that featured detailed descriptions of all cracks and damage, and they also installed a network of sensors that will monitor the church long-term and ensure it doesn’t deteriorate further.

Throughout their investigations, the researchers also were conscious and respectful of the varying political views and religious customs prevalent in the region. In fact, not one, but four, different denominations oversee all activities at the Church of the Nativity. Different sections of the church belong to the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic, and Syriac Orthodox church authorities. And even though the Hall of Saint Jerome falls under the auspices of the Armenian Church, all of the churches needed to grant approval for every protocol.

One of the researchers’ early recommendations was that one of the columns in the hall desperately needs retrofitting and stabilization before any future excavations can proceed. However, even though they have returned to their homes, the researchers continue to communicate and interpret data from the sensors they left in place. In the future, they also will guide future excavations so that archaeologists can learn more about ancient history in the region.

Support through the Civil & Environmental Engineering annual fund, which enables the department to respond quickly to emerging opportunities, helped make Fratta’s participation in this important research possible.

Author: Sam Million-Weaver