Oxford researchers to reveal the stories behind ancient religious relics

The University of Oxford is set to become a world-leading centre in the study of ancient Christian relics.

Relics are objects that survive from ancient times, often associated with a saint’s body or their belongings, and usually kept as objects of historical interest or spiritual devotion. The new Oxford initiative will launch today at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre (ASC). For the first time, it will bring together a large team of researchers from a range of different disciplines to study religious relics. It will include experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics and theology. Until now, these dimensions have been studied separately but this initiative will provide a joined up approach.

The researchers aim to understand more about the origin and movement around the world of religious relics that have been attributed to specific individuals. They will be aided by significant developments in scientific methods, such as higher precision radiocarbon dating that can pinpoint chronologies. DNA analysis can establish common ancestries and the probable geographic origin of an individual, while historical and material evidence can be used to identify objects of special interest and set scientific data in a proper context to show how the relics were moved around by the Christian networks around the world.

Oxford has a long-held had a reputation in studying the remains of relics, using the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit to date the Shroud of Turin and remains attributed to St John the Baptist. More recent work has included an analysis of remains that were thought to be of St Luke, St David, and the True Cross – remains of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, according to Christian tradition. The results of this latest work are not yet published.

In 2014, the team analysed remains of a small finger bone attributed to John the Baptist that was associated with the famous Guelph Treasure, a medieval collection of relics and ecclesiastical art that came to be associated with the European royal House of Guelph. The sample from the finger bone was dated to 660-770 AD, which meant it was too young for St John the Baptist, however, the researchers are still intrigued as to why it is much older than the rest of the Guelph relic collection, which started after 1100 AD.

A key researcher Professor Tom Higham, who is Deputy Director of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, said ‘It’s the first time, I believe, that scholars from many different disciplines have collaborated in the ongoing study of ancient religious relics. We want to find out the age and origin of the relics, whether they were from the same individuals, and where they were moved to. We will not be able to say with 100 % certainty that they belong to a particular individual who is celebrated as a saint. However, through gathering a body of evidence we will be able to say whether or not the remains originate from the same time and place as the attributed saint.’

Dr Georges Kazan of the School of Archaeology in Oxford said: ‘By analysing remains attributed to specific individuals, we hope to build up a picture of when and how relics appear in the historic record and whether any are related to each other in time and space. The Christian belief that relics were imbued with miraculous powers, granting benefits both in this world and the next, resulted in widespread demand and circulation, particularly in The Middle Ages. Scientific analysis has now shown that a number of relics attributed to specific saints are counterfeit or misidentified, while revealing that others may in fact be of the time and place where a particular ‘holy’ person lived.. Whereas in the past larger samples were needed for dating, we now have the latest scientific processes that allow us to establish the true date of samples from tiny samples - the size of a pinch of salt. Even if they have been handled over the centuries, we have processes that allow us to obtain the real dates by purifying the relics of more ‘modern’ contaminant particles.’

For information or photographs please contact thomas.higham@rlaha.ox.ac.uk or georges.kazan@arch.ox.ac.uk
Alternatively, you can contact the University of Oxford News Office on on +44 (0) 1865 280534 or email news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk