Monday, February 22, 2010

Relics fail!

This exchange between William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, in The Name of the Rose seems pretty timely...

“Some time ago, in the Cathedral of Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve”

“Really?” I exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, I added, “But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!”

“The other skull must be in another treasury,” William said, with a grave face.

I say timely because last week, a study reporting the results of genetic and radiocarbon assays on the putative skulls of St. Bridget (of Sweden) and her daughter Catherine was published (Nilsson et al. 2010). And, lo and behold, it turns out that the skulls apparently belong to unrelated female individuals. And because the genetic tests indicated that the two skulls displayed different degrees of DNA degradation, which ResearchBlogging.orgsuggested that they might be of significantly, radiocarbon dates were also obtained for them: the skull thought to be the saintly relic yielded a calibrated age of 1215–1270 AD, while the one thought to be the saintly daughter rung in at 1470–1670 AD. Since St. Bridget lived from 1303-1373, these dates essentially confirm that the skulls held at Vadstena Abbey are not those of the saints.

It's always better to have mutually reinforcing lines of evidence when trying to answer an archaeological question. This is an elegant demonstration of why. At first glance, it may appear that simply dating the skulls would have been sufficient to demonstrate that they did not belong to who they were claimed to belong to, but then again, issues of contamination could have been raised, so the results of both the genetic and the radiocarbon analyses complement one another nicely in this case.

I've always wondered why relics exert such fascination on believers, especially when the vast majority of them is unlikely to be real, as succinctly encapsulated by another great quote about relics from The Name of the Rose:"... don't succumb too much to the spell of these cases. I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord's torment could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest." As concerns specifically human remains used as relics, I've always wondered how some of the more observant faithful would feel about knowing that the similar practices of ritualized handling of bits of dead people have considerable antiquity stretching all the way back to the Pleistocene. As I summarized in a previous post, there's some suggestive evidence that at least as far back as the Middle Stone Age, in distinctly non-Christian contexts, people handled both human teeth and crania in a likely ritual manner.


Nilsson, M., Possnert, G., Edlund, H., Budowle, B., Kjellström, A., & Allen, M. (2010). Analysis of the Putative Remains of a European Patron Saint–St. Birgitta PLoS ONE, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008986

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