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Are These the Bones of Santa Claus?

Relic of St. Nicholas

A new radio carbon analysis of a relic claimed to be part of St. Nicholas’ pelvis suggests the bone could possibly be authentic.

Using a micro-sample of bone fragment originally held in Lyon, France, Professor Tom Higham and Dr Georges Kazan, the Directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, tested the relic to determine its actual age. The radio carbon dating results pinpoint the sample to the fourth century AD – the time that some historians allege that St. Nicholas died (around 343 AD). Professor Higham said: ‘Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself.’

Relic of St. Nicholas
Relic of St. Nicholas (pelvis fragment) at St. Martha of Bethany Church/Shrine of All Saints, Morton Grove Ill., USA / Copyright T. Higham & G. Kazan

The fragment tested is currently owned by Father Dennis O’Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, Illinois, but most of the bones believed to be from St. Nicholas are still preserved in the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Southern Puglia, where they have lain since 1087, buried in a crypt beneath a marble altar. Other fragments lay in the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice. The relics held in Venice consist of as many as 500 bone fragments, which an anatomical study concluded were complementary to the Bari collection, suggesting that both sets of relics could originate from the same individual.

Dr Kazan said: ‘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. 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’.

One of the most revered Orthodox Christian saints, St. Nicholas is thought to have lived in the fourth century in Myra, Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. According to legend, he was a wealthy man who was widely known for his generosity, a trait that inspired the legend of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day. Believed to have been persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian, the saint died in Myra, where his remains became a focus of Christian devotion. His remains are said to have been taken away by a group of Italian merchants and transported to Bari.

In the 16th century, stories about St. Nicholas become popular, and the legend of Father Christmas was born. December 6 is known and celebrated in several European countries, particularly Holland, as St. Nicholas’ Feast Day. On the eve of the feast, children leave out clogs and shoes to be filled with presents.

The Oxford archaeologists’ work has revealed that St. Nicholas’ pelvic bone has been venerated for almost 1700 years, making it one of the oldest relics that the team has ever analysed. Of the possible authenticity of the relic itself, Professor Higham concludes: ‘Science is not able to definitely prove that it is, it can only prove that it is not’.

Thomas Higham is Professor of Archaeological Science and a Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. He is the Director of the Keble Advanced Studies Centre and Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) at the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. For his profile, go to http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/TH1.html

Dr Georges Kazan is a Collegium Fellow at the University of Turku Institute of Advances Studies (TIAS), Researcher at the University of Turku Department of Archaeology and Hon. Research Associate at the University of Oxford School of Archaeology.

For more on the Oxford Relics Cluster go here: http://www.keble-asc.com/cluster/relics-cluster/relics-cluster

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