Dr Georges Kazan

Oxford Mail:

University of Oxford School of Archaeology

A home for ancient relics sounds like a joke, but Oxford is set to become a world-leading centre in the study of remains attributed to saints or other ‘holy’ individuals.

We have the expertise and are now seeking funding for dedicated researchers to study this fascinating subject.

For a person, like you or me, a relic might be a cherished keepsake, like a family heirloom.

There are some, however, which have great significance for an entire faith, nation or culture.

Many Christians saw relics as earthly repositories of God’s Holy Spirit, able to work miracles and bestow healing. They became invaluable commodities and symbols of status, particularly during the Middle Ages. After the Reformation, the trade in relics was seen as the embodiment of the worst excesses of superstition and cynicism.

Until recently, the investigation of relics and the evidence they provide remained the preserve of theologians and historians, with texts, oral traditions and works of art providing the primary source of evidence. But there are now new possibilities in the field of radiocarbon dating.

The concentration of radiocarbon in all living things is relatively constant over time, and traces of the C14 isotope contained in organic substances can be measured to find out its age.

Since the late 1980s, the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) in the School of Archaeology has applied modern scientific techniques to the study of relics.

The advent of new technology has dramatically reduced the size and quality of sample required, which can be as small as a pinch of salt. ORAU took part in the research project that helped date the Turin Shroud, said to be the burial cloth of Christ, to between 1260 and 1390.

Oxford researchers have also assessed remains attributed to John the Baptist and other Christian saints.

As well as discovering the age of such remains, we want to know what a relic can tell us about the diet and geographic movements of an individual throughout their lifetime, or what new information the substances found with relics can give us about how people chose to show their devotion.

New evidence about how Christian networks transported relics around the globe provides insight into the historical and geopolitical context for the periods studied.

While it is not possible to ‘authenticate’ a relic with 100 per cent certainty, we can discover if the remains are from a different time period or genetic origin to that of the individual that tradition says they belonged to.

It may sound surprising but this is where things really get interesting, as we seek to discover more about the individual whose remains we are actually dealing with and try to answer who were they and where they came from?

We can also carry out research to reveal how the remains were treated after death, and what role they may have played in holy healing practices.

Relics, therefore, like the reliquaries into which they are often found sealed, can represent veritable time capsules, often preserved in far better condition than comparable objects from the same period. Our first project was to find out more about relics attributed to John the Baptist, discovered in the ruins of a 5th-century Byzantine church in Bulgaria. We were quite surprised to find that the bones belonged to a male from the Middle East living in the 1st century AD.

Using ancient written sources, we also established the likely route by which these relics were transported to the site after the destruction of the saint’s original burial in the Holy Land. These exciting findings were reported by the world’s media, and this publicity probably led to the increased funding received by those looking after the site and its heritage. In due course, we will be publishing new findings on an analysis of remains of the True Cross – the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, according to Christian tradition.

We are also researching further relics of St John the Baptist and other 1st century saints.

This week we launched a new research group based at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre that brings together experts in different fields with an interest in relics.

We have historians, archaeologists, classicists and theologians, as well as computer and medical scientists. This project shows that even the two traditionally separate worlds of ‘science’ and ‘faith’ have the potential to work together.

* For more information visit keble-asc.com/cluster/relics-cluster/relics-cluster