The excavations on Franciscan property
Brother Benedict Vlaminck was the first to survey the subsoil around the holy grotto. He published the results of his discoveries in 1900 in its "A Report of the Recent Excavations and Explorations conducted at the Sanctuary of Nazareth." In 1982 he discovered a second grotto with frescoes, then named after Conon, and located to the west of the venerated one and with Byzantine remains of mosaic floors. On this occasion it was the first find on the site of the Crusader church, which held Byzantine remains.
In 1889 and later between 1907 and 1909, the investigations were continued by Prosper Viaud and the results were quickly published in 1910, enhanced with beautiful illustrations in the volume “Nazareth et ses deux églises de l'Annonciation et de Saint-Joseph”. The discoveries had an immediate effect thanks to the unearthing of the mosaic with the crown and the monogram of Christ, together with the famous crusader capitals depicting the stories of the Apostles, found hidden inside a grotto beneath the floor of the convent’s parlour. It seems certain that the capitals, perhaps never used, were hidden at the end of the crusader period in order to protect them from being pillaged or destroyed by the Muslims.
Other excavations were carried out during the construction of the new Franciscan convent in 1930, but the diaries with the annotations were lost during the second world war.
The project for the construction of the new Basilica of the Annunciation, inaugurated in 1969, was the occasion to begin more thorough and extensive research on the history of the village and the ancient remains. The archaeological excavations were directed by father Bellarmino Bagatti, one of the founding fathers of the archaeological tradition of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, who had an expert understanding of the village’s antiquity.
In March 1955, the structures of the Franciscan Church, built in 1730 and extended in 1877, and the old convent and schools were knocked down. The space that was located to the north of the holy grotto, once finally free from structures was explored between April and June of the same year with the help of more than 120 local workers who digging on a daily basis closely watched by father Bagatti and his collaborator father Gaetano Pierri, cleaned up an area of around 90 x 60 metres. The investigations resulted above all in an understanding the village, its characteristic materials and development over time.
The work allowed for the exploration of the area to the east, south and north of the Grotto and shed light on the remains of the crusader and Byzantine churches and the ancient village.
As concerns the crusader Church, aside from the north wall and some other structures already well documented in the past, the apses and the exterior walls were completely unearthed, the cemetery that developed to the east was discovered and at the same time, many parts of granite columns and sculpted blocks that were part of the rich sanctuary’s decoration were uncovered (SEE CRUSADER CHURCH).
The following sections of the Byzantine complex were investigated: the Church- with the apses, the three aisles and the vestry – the remains of the mosaic floors of the areas to the south of the church – and finally, the space reserved for the atrium where a water cistern was also unearthed (SEE BYZANTINE CHURCH).
The excavation of the village, of which the remains can still be visited today inside the archaeological area at the side of the Basilica, uncovering a system of natural and artificial grottos that were an integral part of the dwellings. Different storage bins for grain as well as cisterns for water were found. The latter contained ceramic, providing evidence that the site was used from the iron age up until modern day. A series of tombs dating back to the Middle Bronze Age were also discovered. (SEE VILLAGE OF NAZARETH)
During the construction of the new sanctuary, it became necessary to better conserve the Byzantine mosaics. As a result, they were removed and positioned on a new base. Consequently, the opportunity to also investigate the areas beneath the mosaics arose. To the great surprise of father Bagatti and his collaborators, the remains of a more ancient pre-Byzantine building were brought to light, with clear and multiple signs of Christian veneration (SEE PRE-BYZANTINE PLACE OF WORSHIP).
Overall, there were three main results:
- the discovery of the village of Nazareth in the southern area including the house of the venerated Grotto confirming the existence of the village at the time of Jesus;
- a greater understanding of the structures and of the organisation of the spaces of the two Byzantine and crusader churches;
- the extraordinary discovery of the remains of the first place of worship built on the venerated Grotto, testimony to an interrupted conservation of the memory of Mary’s holy place, from the first Christian centuries up until today.
P.Bagatti described his discoveries in the two volumes dedicated to “Gli scavi di Nazareth” (“The Nazareth excavations”) from the origins to the seventh century and from the twelfth century to today. These were dated and stamped respectively in 1967 and 1984 and followed by a publication translated into English.