Archaeologists studying the ground beneath an ancient church in Demre, Turkey, believe they may be close to solving a mystery more than 1,500 years old.

For centuries, historians have pondered over the final resting place of St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century Christian saint whose secret good deeds served as the model for the legendary figure of Santa Claus. After his death at age 73 in the year 343, the St. Nicholas Church in Demre where he was interred became a popular pilgrimage site. During the Middle Ages, however, his remains were moved in response to conflicts in the region, with reports placing various pieces of his skeleton in the eventual possession of churches in Europe, Russia and even the United States.

The apse of the St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Turkey. The site is currently on UNESCO's tentative list to become a World Heritage Site. The apse of St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Turkey. The site is currently on UNESCO's tentative list to become a World Heritage Site. (Photo: Alexander van Loon/flickr)

According to a new digital survey conducted by Turkish archaeologists, the final resting place of St. Nicholas may actually still lie in the very town where he drew his last breath. Using ground-penetrating radar, they discovered gaps under the St. Nicholas Church that appear to indicate the presence of a subterranean shrine.

"We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of Saint Nicholas," Cemil Karabayram, director of surveying and monuments in Antalya, told the Guardian.

The survey results indicate the chamber is located roughly 5 feet underground and extends an additional 10 feet into the bedrock. That it exists isn't necessarily a surprise. The current structure, erected in 520, was built on the foundations of the older Christian church where St. Nicholas served as a bishop. It's entirely possible that steps were taken during the building of the new church to protect St. Nicholas' remains with the addition of the sealed subterranean temple.

To gain access to the subterranean chamber, the research team will first have to delicately remove a portion of the ancient mosaic floor that graces the church floor. To gain access to the subterranean chamber, the research team will first have to delicately remove a portion of the church's ancient mosaic floor. (Photo: Kelsey/flickr)

Karabayram added that the next step is to assemble a team of researchers from eight different fields of study to begin the careful excavation work needed to reach the hidden chamber. The biggest hurdle will be the delicate removal of the millennia-old mosaics that grace the floor of the church. Each one will need to be carefully loosened and removed together in a mold.

As for the stories of St. Nicholas' bones being scattered around the world, Karabayram believes those remains likely belonged to a local priest and not the saint himself. The group plans to conduct further studies over the next three months to understand how best to enter the hidden chamber without damaging the sacred church.

"We have obtained very good results but the real work starts now," Karabayram added.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.