A NEW centre for the study of religious relics has been opened at the University of Oxford, combining the disciplines of radiocarbon dating, genetics, and theology in a joined-up approach to find out more about the origin and movement of relics around the world.
The centre, at Keble College, was opened this week, and seeks to build on Oxford’s record in working with relics to determine their age and authenticity.
The university’s radiocarbon accelerator unit has previously been used to date the Shroud of Turin —which it suggested that it dated from the Middle Ages rather than the first century — and the remains of St John the Baptist.
In 2014, a team from Oxford also analysed remains of a small finger-bone attributed to St John the Baptist, which was associated with the Guelph Treasure, a medieval collection of relics and ecclesiastical art originally housed at Brunswick Cathedral, in Germany. It took its name from the princely House of Guelph of Brunswick-Lünebur. The sample from the finger-bone was dated to 660-770, which meant that it was too young for St John the Baptist. The researchers, however, are still intrigued as to why it is much older than the rest of the Guelph relic collection, which started after 1100.
More recent work has included an analysis of remains that were thought to be of St Luke, St David, and the remains of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The results of this latest work are not yet published.
The deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, Professor Tom Higham, 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-per-cent 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.”