It’s the first time a bone thought to be from Saint Nicholas has been tested using carbon dating.
Relic of St Nicholas (pelvis fragment); T. Higham & G. Kazan/University of Oxford
The saint, one of the most revered in Orthodox Christianity, is thought to have lived in Myra, Asia Minor, which is now modern-day Turkey, in the fourth century. Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity and numerous miracles attributed to him, and he’s thought to have died on December 6, 343 CE. In addition to being canonized (aka recognized as a saint), his memory lives on in the figure of Father Christmas, bringing gifts on Christmas Day.
Since 1087, the bulk of Saint Nicholas’s remains have been kept in a marble crypt in the Basilica di San Nicola, in Bari, Italy. But as with many saints, parts of the remains have been acquired by churches around the world as objects of devotion, or relics. The sheer number of Saint Nicholas bone relics have led people to wonder: Can they all belong to the same person? And could that person actually be old Saint Nick?
Tom Higham and Georges Kazan, the directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster, tested a micro-sample of a pelvic bone fragment using radiocarbon dating. Testing relics has become easier in recent years thanks to technology improvements that allow researchers to use milligram-size samples, and they say it’s the first time bones thought to be from Saint Nicholas have been tested.
The results showed the bones came from the fourth century, which would be right for the historical Saint Nick. That, of course, doesn’t conclusively prove they’re authentic and belong to him, but it does suggest that they aren’t more recent bones falsely attributed to him—a common practice.
“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest,” Higham said in a press release. “This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.”
The fragment tested by Higham and Kazan didn’t actually come from the remains at the Italian church. Father Dennis O'Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church in Morton Grove, Illinois, provided the bone, a relatively large fragment from a human pelvis. That relic originally came from Lyon, France, showing just how far and wide these holy bones can be dispersed.
The collection of Saint Nicholas bones housed in Bari, Italy, includes only part of the pelvis—the left upper part known as the ilium. The tested fragment comes from the left lower part of the bone (the pubis), which means both pieces could, in theory, have come from the same body. Another collection of Saint Nicholas relics in Venice, Italy, contains as many as 500 bone fragments; an inventory suggests they’re complementary to the Bari collection, meaning they, too, could have come from the same set of bones.
Having shown that one fragment comes from the right historical era, researchers will now use DNA testing to learn whether the fragments all came from the same body. If so, that’d be even more evidence that they belong to the historical Saint Nicholas. “These results encourage us to now turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual,” Higham said in a press release. “We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics, or DNA testing. It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine.”
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