The ASC Relics Cluster: a scientifically-driven historical journey
Saturday 25 July, 2015
National Geographic has awarded an Expeditions Council Grant to researchers in our new ASC Research Cluster on Relics, to fund continuing scientific research into human remains attributed to St John the Baptist, now held at many locations across the world. This grant program supports exploration and adventure worldwide and aims to yield compelling stories and images from explorations and adventures or from scientifically driven inquiries. Professor Tom Higham, Relics Cluster leader and ASC Interim Director, has already analysed some remains of this Saint, but, with this new fund, more remains can now be analysed and compared. The information gained from the analyses will be invaluable for the study of Christian religion, and will allow scholars to explore the pattern of movement of relics across the Christian world, consider networks of patronage and exchange, and understand the relationship of relics to one another. The project has the blessing of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox clergy, including the Patriarch of Constantinople.
How will the Relics Cluster do this research?
The study of relics has traditionally relied upon written records, but of course with the passage of time has come increasing demand and falsification, and so it is thought the vast majority of relics are unlikely to be 'genuine'. However, the application of modern scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis and genetics on human remains will provide a better understanding of specific relics, their age, provenance and history. Thus far, the application of these methods has only rarely been undertaken and not in a systematic manner. The Relics cluster aims to define a new methodology for the study of relics, integrating text-based and scientific analyses which will provide the basis for their systematic study. This will enable researchers to examine the nature, movement, relatedness and historiography of relics for the first time and allow them to place important relics in their proper context. The importance of the work of this cluster is therefore significant in historical, anthropological and archaeological contexts.
Previous work by the cluster has demonstrated the power of the approach taken here. For example, full mitochondrial DNA genomes have recently been obtained from 3 bones found inside a reliquary sarcophagus beneath a 4th-5th century Byzantine church in Bulgaria. Texts found in association referred to the remains as being "of Saint John", in this case John the Baptist. Accelerator mass spectrometry dating showed they were from the 1st century AD while the genomes analysis showed that these three samples were almost certainly from the same male individual, who may have originated in the Near East. Although it is still impossible to identify these bones as the remains of John the Baptist, the combination of genetics and radiocarbon is able to build a reliable picture of the age, ancestry, origin and context of relics such as these attributed to known individuals, in this case John the Baptist. By applying the same methods to a range of similarly attributed relics, the cluster will be able to build a reliable database of genomic and dating results.
Find more about this Research Cluster here