Can a spatter of ancient blood heal the sick? Is a piece of cloth useful in praying for the poor? Can desiccated eyeball help you get into heaven? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I did talk to a man who leads a team investigating religious relics - the pieces of long-dead humans that many Christian churches have been built around.
A religious relic usually consists of either the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or a venerated person, preserved as a memento and point of contact with the person. Some Christians believe that relics are imbued with miraculous powers, granting benefits both in this world and the next. In the past, this resulted in widespread demand for and circulation of relics, particularly in the Middle Ages. Trade in relics became profitable; thousands of fake relics appeared and were sold. What were said to be the body parts of saints, popes or Jesus Christ himself were more likely to be pieces of unknown people or animals.
Tom Higham is a Professor of Archaeological Science at Oxford University. He leads a team of scientists and academics who study religious relics. In the past, people in this field have worked alone, and didn’t get as much interdisciplinary insight into the relics as they could have. Higham’s team includes archaeologists like himself, historians, osteologers, 3D modellers, people who work in CT scanning, theologians, geologists, and social anthropologists all working together to gain as much knowledge about the relics as possible. The team are particularly interested in relics from the Byzantine era, before the period when there was a large market in fake relics. Helena, the mother of the Greek Emperor Constantine, was obsessed with relics and went to Jerusalem to collect them in the second and third century.
To give you some idea of how cool Higham is, he was part of the team who carbon-dated the skull used in Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God; the artwork with the highest asking price of any living artist. His lab worked on the world’s most famous relic, The Shroud of Turin, and he has appeared on a David Attenborough documentary, analysing the remains of an elephant bird egg Attenborough found in pieces on a beach. He is also Critic Executive Editor Joe Higham’s dad, which is pretty freakin’ rad.
It may seem strange that churches would allow a team of scientists and academics into their holy spaces to mess around with something as sacred as bits of saints. While there are some relics the team haven’t been able to access - the head of John the Baptist at Amiens Cathedral in France, for example - most churches are happy for their relics to be tested, and even seek out the relics team. In the parts of the world that are becoming increasingly secular, such as Britain and Europe, fewer people are going to church, the buildings are falling into disrepair, and often nobody is paying attention to the relics. Higham says people “often don’t even know what they’ve got when we arrive.” A lot of the time there will be relics in some back cupboard. Higham visited a church in Chicago where there are over 1400 relics, most of which have been collected by one man through online purchasing on eBay. “There are millions of others that just sit and do nothing.”
However, Higham says, there are some relics that are “unbelievably important”, like the Shroud of Turin or the head of John the Baptist. “People come and they believe in them, they want to be near them.” It is unsurprising that some believers are distrustful of scientists messing with sacred relics. The Shroud is supposedly the cloth Jesus’ body was wrapped in when he was taken from the cross, and what he emerged from when he was resurrected. It is a massive piece of linen imprinted with what appears to be the face and body of a naked man, with dark brown stains made by human blood. Higham’s team, along with two other laboratories, were sent a tiny fragment of the shroud, along with a piece of cloth from Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, and two pieces from the medieval period, to be part of a blind test. “In fact,” says Higham, “as soon as the samples were open the lab could tell which one was the shroud because it has a very distinctive weave. Perhaps they should have disentangled it for us”. All three labs gave the same results for each of the samples, suggesting that the Shroud dated back to 1300-1400 CE.
Far from dissuading some people, Higham says the lab results fuelled a lot of discussion and debate, “which is fine”, but a splinter group suggested the labs had swapped the samples round, and the piece of Shroud had been swapped for the Egyptian sample, making the date wrong. Another idea was that there had been a fire in the cathedral, and the smoke had tainted the radiocarbon concentrations of the shroud material, which Highams says is “completely wrong, completely without any scientific basis.” Nowadays his team don’t like to talk about the Shroud much because “We’re kind of sick of it.” What’s interesting is that before the Shroud was dated it had about a million visitors a year, and after it was dated it started getting about four million visitors a year. “So there are more people interested in the Shroud now that it’s shown to be likely medieval work than it is to be a real artefact.” The Shroud is still mysterious - we still don’t know how it was made. “There are theories that Leonardo Da Vinci painted it - crazy stuff.”
Speaking of Leonardo, a Google search of Higham’s team pulls up the name “The Da Vinci Code Unit.” The name was coined by a writer at the Daily Telegraph, to the bemusement of the team. However, it was this name that caught the attention of The Times and The Mirror, and they have since been working with TV companies, including CNN and National Geographic, to produce documentaries on their work.
Some relics are quite convincing. One of Higham’s team, Dr Georges Kazan, who did his PhD on the evidence for the remains of John the Baptist, called Higham four years ago to tell him about archaeologists in Bulgaria who had made a discovery under a Byzantine church in an island off the Black Sea coast. Underneath the altar they found a small basket box containing bits of animal and human bones, and, close to it, another box with an inscription in Greek. It translates as: “Lord help your servant Thomas … of St John” then gives the feast day of John the Baptist, and more words they can’t decipher. Higham says his team were impressed: “Because the island is called Sveti Ivan St John and because the church was identified in the Byzantine period as being named after John the Baptist, these guys suggested the bones were related to the saint, and could in fact be the saint.” The team then dated the remains to the first century, found that all of the bones were from the same body, and were from a male human with DNA highly consistent with people living today in the near east. The team’s excitement has since been dulled by the possibility that the DNA could be contaminated. “We can’t be sure, so we’re not going to publish it like that now. We can say the date, but we can’t say that the bones were all from one individual.”
“As a scientist I have to say we can never identify positively that something actually belongs to somebody unless there is an incredible trail of evidence involved.” Higham uses the example of Richard the Third’s remains, which were discovered in Leicester in 2012. The age and appearance of the skeleton matched the time of Richard’s death, his recorded physical abnormalities, and the humiliation wounds he likely received in battle and execution. Scientists were then able to link the DNA from the remains to Richard the Third’s living relatives. “Try identifying the remains of John the Baptist and it’s difficult.” However, the team can say that the remains aren’t somebody. “You find a radiocarbon date that’s different, or the DNA shows it’s the remains of a woman, or you find bits and pieces duplicated elsewhere making it highly unlikely to be that person.”
Radiocarbon dating is a process so remarkable it sounds made-up. It involves molecules, sunspots, and the rings of trees. All organic material contains radiocarbon, the molecules of which have a “half-life” of 5,500 years, meaning after that length of time, half of the radiocarbon will have decayed. Radiocarbon is created in the upper atmosphere of the Earth in quantities that fluctuate year-to-year depending on the amount of solar magnetic radiation from the sun. Less radiocarbon is created when the sun is very active, and more is created when it is less active. This means in order to get dates that are meaningful in calendar time, we need to know how much radiocarbon there was at a certain point in history. For that we use tree rings, which grow wider in a warm environment, and narrower in a cold one. These rings can be matched against other trees in different places and used to build up a chronology in time by overlapping them with trees that are dead. The longest tree-ring chronology goes back 12,000 years. Higham and his team use these chronologies to date their archaeological finds. “Sometimes the amount of radiocarbon has fluctuated very sharply, so we can get a very precise calendar date. Other times it’s more subtle, so then we get very imprecise dates. Usually it’s within about 100 years.”
“You wouldn’t believe the things we find” said Higham. “We’ve seen about seven foreskins of Jesus.” What does a foreskin look like after several centuries? “Shrivelly. Either the guy had a massive foreskin, or . . .” Higham has also seen lots of blood, the blood of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes (nappies) of Jesus, many thorns from the Crown of Thorns, and pieces of the True Cross. “We’ve found tongues of loads of people. I don’t think I’ve seen the tongue of Jesus but I’ve seen the tongue of a saint. It’s been coated in something. When I saw it I was quite grossed out cos you don’t expect to see tongues.” Also, eyeballs, which are “little and dried.” I’m squeamish, but Higham says it is unlikely that you could catch a disease from an old human body part as bacterial diseases usually disappear with time. If it was something airborne or viral it may still be dangerous but it “would have to be an exceptional case.” “You can excavate things from the Black Death, and no one worries too much about that.”
The presentation of the relics can be impressive. Some are put into a monstrance - an ornate, golden container - or a reliquary, which is often in the shape of the bone or the bit of the person. A reliquary may be in the shape of a head or an arm, with a little window you can open to look at the bone, or tooth, or skull. A lot of them have been covered in glue or preservation material, which has to be removed from the analysed piece.
The treatment of relics can also contaminate them with human DNA. “A lot of these relics have been touched, kissed, or licked, or sometimes put into liquid.” Higham’s lab has a mummified hand that’s supposed to be from St James. “We know that the hand was put into liquid and that the liquid was then used to treat people and to be drunk.” This is challenging when the team analyse tiny pieces of matter, some the size of a grain of rice. Higham’s own DNA has “been found all over some of this stuff.” Non-animal relics are less likely to be contaminated, as they test the cellulose products from trees and plants. The linen from the Shroud of Turin has “a very high consistency of being just the cellulose of original plant.” The contamination needed to mess up the radiocarbon date is tens of percent. “You’d be able to see the contaminant. That’s why we are very confident that the shroud is not dated at the time of Christ.”
The Catholic Church today sends out the remains of modern relics; pieces of hair or bone from modern popes and saints such as Mother Theresa in order to consecrate new churches.
While there is a horrendous and illegal trade in modern human body parts, relics are usually old enough to be fair game for trading. The reason Damien Hirst radiocarbon dated the skull used in his artwork For the Love of God was to make sure it was more than 100 years old, and so legal to use. “It turned out to be about 190 or 200 years old. For old relics I don’t think anyone really cares.” Higham told me you could buy relics on the internet. I looked on eBay and there it was - a brown smear in a glass pendant: a little something-or-other from Saint Pope Pius X for about $164NZ. Could it be him?