Around 1100AD, Pope Paschal II marked the appointment of Ireland’s first bishop on a visit to Waterford by handing over a fragment of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Ever since, this story has percolated down through centuries of Celtic oral tradition to explain the origins of the silver-encased relic containing five pieces of ancient wood that remains in the city to this day.
The only problem with this charming tale of high-end medieval patronage is that thanks to the pioneering work of a new team of Oxford University academics the idea that this ancient object of veneration holds 2,000-year-old remains of the “True Cross” is almost certainly untrue.
Carbon dating of the cedar shards has revealed that rather than being contemporaneous with the death of Jesus the cedar splinters date from around 1100 - showing that the bits of wood presented by Pope Paschal were about 1,000 years too young to have played a role in the crucifixion.
This tantalising evidence of possible papal sleight of hand is one of the first findings of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Religious Relics, an inter-disciplinary body of around a dozen scientists, historians, archaeologists and theologians that has been set up to study objects of spiritual devotion harnessing for the first time experts from both the sciences and the arts. Perhaps inevitably, it has been dubbed “the Da Vinci Code Unit”.
At first blush, such a title seems appropriate.
At least once a month members of the team have been fanning out to churches and museums across Europe to take tiny samples of relics ranging from bones reputed to come from John the Baptist to skull shards from the time of Christ found buried in the wall of a Finnish cathedral.
Once back in Oxford, the specimens are subjected to the full arsenal of archaeological detective techniques that modern science can muster - from carbon dating using the university’s £2m carbon dating accelerator to full DNA and genome analysis.
When combined with information from historical and religious documents, the results lift the veil on the true nature of fragments of bone, wood and cloth which have been worshipped and venerated by the faithful for centuries.
Such is the rapidly-advancing nature of the science that the centre, based at Keble College, can uncover detail such as whether a saint was a vegan and the likely geographic and ethnic origin of the individual whose remains have ended up in an ornate reliquary perhaps hundreds of miles from where they fell.
It is work that inescapably also casts light on the authenticity of relics - objects that were the subject of a medieval gold rush as priests and princes across Europe and the Middle East fought to get their hands on the body parts and clothing of saints and prophets to invoke their spiritual - and revenue-generating - powers. Such was the value of a splinter from the True Cross or a digit from John the Baptist that the medieval relic market was awash with forgeries and pious con artists.
But those behind the “relics cluster” underline that they are not embarked on a hi-tech witch hunt for religious fakery.
Professor Tom Higham, the founder of the group and the deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, told The Independent: “We are not on a crusade to prove or disprove the authenticity of these things. This is much more to do with the way that relics have become what they are, the way they represent Christian traditions.
“We’re much more interested in understanding their passage of movement and their significance rather than proving or disproving whether they are real or not. The truth is the majority of them may not be.”
He added: “Using these bio-archaeological techniques we can now really start to put flesh on these bones - who did they belong to? Where did they come from? And how old are they? That’s what makes this so exciting because we have the opportunity to really understand these objects.”
Pope Paschal II, potentially unmasked by the unit as some form of Rome-based confidence trickster travelling Europe to pass off chunks of freshly-hewn cedar as 1,000-year-old treasures, is a case in point.
Dr Georges Kazan, co-director of the unit and a research associate at Oxford’s School of Archaeology, said: “A date of 1100 [for the Waterford relic] may well suggest a forgery but we can’t rush to judgment. For a start, who is to say that the pope knew that the True Cross relic was not old and that its nature wasn’t hidden from him too? Also, it is an oral tradition and there are several competing explanations. This is about building up a cultural history of the object.
“Relics have an iconic status, so even if it turns out to have a different date from the one expected, it has served that purpose and been venerated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Christian tradition is that prayers are offered not to a relic but to God.”
Nonetheless, the risk that a relic that remains the focus of pilgrimages to Europe’s holy sites might be shown to be a dud has meant that a handful of institutions approached by Dr Kazan have declined the opportunity to have their treasures put under the bright lights of science. An approach to the Vatican to look at relics of St Peter has also so far gone unanswered.
But a large number of churches and museums have declared themselves enthusiastic about the project. Among those who have given the unit their blessing are the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Catholic bishops of Liege and Nice and the Louvre museum.
The current focus of the unit’s work is more than 150 relics from John the Baptist, whose remains have been “discovered” at least three times over the centuries and as a result his body parts are the subject of multiple competing claims. There are, for example, known to be some ten thumbs from the saint in existence.
So far the centre has been funded by contracts with broadcasters - National Geographic and CNN - to investigate specific relics but it is applying for research grants to broaden its work.
Part of the success of the centre in persuading otherwise reluctant clergy and curators to discover the truth of their relics is that the testing can be carried out with only minute samples of about a tenth of a gram - less than a pinch of salt.
Even before an item is touched, it is looked at by anthropologists and osteologists, or bone experts who can look for tell-tale signs of disease or trauma.
Perhaps surprisingly, one in three of the relics it has looked at have proved to date from the period they were claimed to be from. But the team is also careful to point out that - as with a “John the Baptist” knuckle bone found buried beneath a Bulgarian church and dated to the 1st Century AD - it also cannot prove that a relic did indeed belong to a particular saint.
For all its scientific and historical rigour, the team, which has also conducted as yet undisclosed work in Britain, is not without its Indiana Jones-style moments.
Dr Kazan and Prof Higham recently found themselves heaving a marble slab from the altar of a church in central France after discovery a lost reliquary which may contain a skull claimed to be that of John the Baptist. A further layer of marble proved unmoveable but the researchers expect to return in the coming months.
Prof Higham said: “It’s really quite cool work. It’s got everything really, it’s like a detective story - we have the mystery and we have the forensics. A few years ago you couldn’t possibly do this work because it would have been way too expensive. Now we can get a full genome within a few weeks. It’s an exciting area in so many ways.”
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