Piece of the True Cross Discovered? Does it Matter?

One of most interesting bits of archaeological news to emerge recently has been the discovery in the 7th-century Balatlar church in Sinop, Turkey (on the southern coast of the Black Sea) of a small stone box decorated with incised crosses.  Inside, archaeologists found a splinter of wood.  It is not just ANY piece of wood, they claim, but a fragment of the True Cross, the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.


Professor Gülgün Koroğlu holds a piece of the reliquary in which the fragment was found. Photo, UK Daily Mail.

My gentle readers may be forgiven their skepticism if their first question is: “Seriously?” Logically speaking, we would be hard pressed to accept at face value claims that a piece of wood buried in a box is a tiny piece of the True Cross.  In fact, it is easy to scoff at such claims, but as a scholar with a keen interest in religious relics of several historical periods, I want to address the question and explain why this discovery is significant.

(Also, I have been extremely frustrated with the way media outlets have covered the story (see links below), trying to spin it as “proof” of Christ’s historical existence.  Despite what individuals may or may not believe about that question, a relic of the True Cross is not a piece of evidence one way or the other, and suggesting that it might be just leads people to ask the wrong questions and argue about the wrong points.  [end of soapbox])

First, I’d like to address the question of whether the relic is real or not:

Verifying the historical authenticity of relics is extremely problematic.  True Cross fragments – many of which have been identified over the centuries – are particularly questionable because according to Christian legend, the True Cross was not even recovered until about 300 years after the crucifixion, when the emperor Constantine’s mom Helena went poking around in the Holy Land. So, even if one could somehow prove that a fragment was a piece of the cross that was “found” by Helena (an impossible task, I think), one would still be no closer to proving it was part of the instrument of Christ’s crucifixion. From a scientific standpoint, I find it extremely unlikely that that object survived for 300 years to be discovered by Helena.  So my PERSONAL answer as to whether this fragment of wood is part of the cross of the crucifixion is “no.”  But that doesn’t diminish my interest in the find, nor does it mean I disagree with the archaeologists who have declared it to be a piece of the True Cross.  You see, they are not necessarily claiming it is a splinter from that specific object, but rather are announcing their discovery of a piece of wood believed in the early medieval period to be a piece of the True Cross.  There is an important distinction to be drawn between those two things, a distinction of which many who are responding to the story (journalists and commenters alike) seem to be unaware.


Piero dell Francesca, “Discovery and Proof of the True Cross”, 1466. Fresco in the Bascilica of San Franceso, Arrezzo, Italy.

A glance through the comments section of any of the online news pieces will find people lining up to mock the archaeologists who announced the discovery for their apparently un-scientific method – declaring that an object is a piece of the True Cross simply “because we say so.”  Skeptics, not content to take that declaration on faith alone, want hard proof before they will accept such a claim.  Those skeptics, however, are missing a key point:  faith is, in fact, the most important thing bearing on a relic, and faith was as important in determining the identification of the object in the historical period in which the relic was first discovered as it is now.

Let me explain.  On a recent cruise of the Black Sea on the line Voyages to Antiquity, on which I was speaking as a guest lecturer, we boarded the ship in Istanbul, where the passengers visited Topkapı Palace before we set sail.  The seat of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapı’s treasury houses one of the world’s most important collections of Muslim religious relics, an assortment that includes objects related to Old Testament figures revered in common by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  On the ship later that day, a passenger asked me whether the Sword of David displayed in that collection is real.  I gave him the answer my students always hate to hear: “What do YOU think?”  A classic way to dodge a question with no answer – or at least no scientifically verifiable answer – it’s also the most pertinent question in this case, because the importance of relics lies in the power people assign them.  As I like to point out in presentations I give on saints and relics, whether a relic is “real” is not the important thing. The important thing is that people have agreed that it will stand in for whatever object it represents (in this case the True Cross, in others the head of John the Baptist, etc.), take on the power of that object, and serve as a focus for veneration. That converts a simple object into a source of religious and social power.

Therefore, although there is absolutely no way to verify the authenticity of the splinter of wood discovered in Sinop as a fragment of the cross on which Christ died, as an artifact it has a valuable story to tell archaeologists and historians, which brings us to the second question I’d like to address:

What is the value of this discovery?

Whether relics are “real” or not, they had real power to the people and institutions that owned them and venerated them, which means they are important in constructing a well-rounded understanding of the historical periods in which they originated. In terms of this specific example, not knowing enough about the excavation of Balatlar church to say specifically how this piece fits into the jigsaw puzzle of history the archaeologists are putting together there, it is difficult for me to make many concrete suggestions about how it might add to their analyses.

But one thing it tells them is that pilgrims would have visited this church to see, touch, and perhaps even kiss this piece of wood (although we know from historical sources that medieval churches with fragments of the True Cross quickly learned that if they allowed pilgrims to kiss the object, their relic would slowly become smaller as some visitors nibbled tiny pieces off it to carry away with them!).  With those pilgrims came many things: fame and prestige for the church; money for the church’s coffers in the form of donations; an injection of cash into local businesses as pilgrims paid for lodging, food and souvenirs; and other less-positive things such as diseases carried from place to place by religious travelers.  Pilgrims were an important part of the medieval economy, and this tiny fragment of wood may help archaeologists flesh out the story of Balatlar church, its community, and how it fit into the social and economic matrix of other communities in its region. So much evidence from one little splinter!

Articles on the find:






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A Striking Visit to Segesta, Sicily

Early in the afternoon of Tuesday, July 9, lightning struck the site of Segesta on Sicily, setting at least two separate grass fires within the grounds of the archaeological park.  Due to the location of the lightning strikes, both the Greek-style theater and the 5th century BC Doric temple – one of the best-preserved and most important examples of Doric architecture surviving from the ancient world – were in great danger.  The site was evacuated, and local fire crews responded swiftly and effectively with tactics including airdrops of water.  Although the line of the fire approached the temple from both the northeast and the northwest, and reached within approximately 50 yards of the building, responders managed to extinguish it before it caused any damage to the structure.  The theater was also unharmed, as were the remains of the city’s agora and of the Byzantine church above it.  Tragically, a young child playing on the beach below the site was killed by lightning.

The picture below, which I took the following day, shows the extent of the fire damage to the surrounding countryside, and its proximity to the temple.  It was taken just below the agora.  The charred area is to the right; a second area of fire damage behind the temple, which reached even closer to it, is not visible.  Image


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Setting Sail

Harryhausen_fleeceMy last post here on my blog was about returning home from lecturing on a cruise on the Voyages to Antiquity line.  Now, almost a year later, it’s time to board the Aegean Odyssey again for another stint!  It’s almost embarrassing how I’ve let this blog fall by the wayside, but this past year has been one of great change as I took on a new academic position at Anderson University in South Carolina.  A cross-country move, 120 new students, and responsibilities teaching the full range of art from all cultures and all historical periods kept me quite busy!

But now it’s time to recharge my batteries on a ship, sailing the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  The highlight of this cruise for me, and the topic of one of my lectures, will be retracing the route of Jason and the Argonauts from Greece to the shore of modern Georgia (ancient Kolchis).  Although we think of as just a story – with all of its fantastic supernatural elements like Harpies, fire-breathing bulls, and warriors grown from dragon’s teeth – for the ancient Greeks the Argonautika was a historical event that they dated firmly in the 13th century B.C.E: 1264 B.C.E. to be exact.  So is it pure mythology, or does the story of the Quest for the Golden Fleece preserve an echo of a real historical voyage made by Mycenaean Greeks in a fairly primitive ship at a time when the Black Sea (which later Greeks called The Inhospitable Sea) represented the very limits of the known world?  I hope this trip will shed some light on that question for me.  After all, Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 film “Jason and the Argonauts” was one of the reasons I became so entranced with ancient myth and legend in my childhood!

As time and internet connect permit, I’ll try to post pictures and short comments along the route of the trip.  

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Home Again, Home Again

Odysseus steps ashore on Ithaka after years of wandering. Sculpture at the dock in Vathy.

I’m still in recovery mode after another wonderful month spent aboard my second (floating) home, the Aegean Odyssey.  As always, cruising the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean – bouncing from fascinating historical sites to breathtaking natural landscapes – made me feel like an adventurer, an explorer, and a time traveler all rolled into one.  This particular voyage felt more like an actual odyssey than most because it included a stop at the home port of the legendary Odysseus himself, on the Greek island of Ithaka (see photos).  Add to that the fact that there were two lovely ladies named Penelope sailing with us (also, of course, the name of Odysseus’s ever-faithful wife who held down the homestead during the long years that her husband fought at Troy and made his epic journey back home) and it seemed downright legendary!  Stay tuned for pictures and posts about some of the most interesting places we made port on the journey. In the meantime, enjoy these photos and the text of “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy, a beautiful poem about life, travel, experiences, and our ultimate arrival home.

The port of Vathy on Ithaka. I understand why Odysseus never wanted to leave home in the first place!


When you set out for Ithaka
Ask that your way be long,
Full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon — do not fear them;
Such as these you will never find
As long as your thought is lofty,
As long as a rare emotion
Touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon — you will not meet them
Unless you carry them in your soul,
Unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long,
At many a summer dawn to enter —
With what gratitude, what joy!
Ports seen for the first time;
To stop at Phoenician trading centers,
And to buy good merchandise.
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
And sensuous perfumes of every kind.
Buy as many sensuous perfumes as you can,
Visit many Egyptian cities
To learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaka fixed in your mind;
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But do not in the least hurry the journey.
Better that it last for years
So that when you reach the island you are old,
Rich with all that you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka has given you the splendid voyage.
Without her you would never have set out,
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor,
Ithaka has not deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
That already you will have understood
What these Ithakas mean.

– C. P. Cavafy (1868-1933)

Arriving at Ithaka.


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Embarking for Another Adventure

Any regular readers will have noticed that I’ve been largely absent from my blog for the last two months or so.  That’s not because amazing things haven’t been happening in the world of archaeology (see my Twitter sidebar at right for links to stories on vampires excavated in Bulgaria, Egyptian animal mummies, and the discovery of one of Caesar’s battlefields in Belgium, for example), but because I’ve been busy prepping for two major events:

First, I am thrilled to announce that in August, I will be joining the faculty of the Visual Arts department of Anderson University (in Anderson, South Carolina) as Assistant Professor of Art History (http://www.auvisualarts.com/faculty.html).  I’m looking forward to being back “home” in the South, and to the opportunity to work with fantastic students who are producing impressive work.  I’ll be teaching everything from prehistoric art to contemporary art, so it will also give me a chance to spend time with some of my passions that lie outside the ancient world, such as medieval and Renaissance painting and architecture.  In the past few weeks of prepping class lectures, I’ve also rediscovered my love of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, with which I have not had the opportunity to spend much time since my days as an MA student at Tulane.  This is where my preparation for my new courses dovetails wonderfully with my other major upcoming event…

I will be leaving tomorrow to spend a month as an onboard lecturer on the ship Aegean Odyssey for the cruise line Voyages to Antiquity.  This will be my fourth cruise with the line, and I cannot say enough about what a fantastic experience their voyages are.  I will be speaking on ancient and medieval topics such as the veneration, sale, and theft of holy relics in the Middle Ages; the representation of the human form in ancient Mediterranean art from 22,000 BC to the 4th century AD; and the sensory experience of living in a Greek or Roman city.  I will also be accompanying the passengers on tours of archaeological sites such as Pompeii, Olympia, and the palace of the emperor Diocletian at Split (Croatia).  As much as I enjoy sharing my love of history and archaeology with an audience, I am also very much looking forward to benefitting from the expertise of the other lecturers who will be on board, such as Dr. Francis Broun.  Dr. Broun is a specialist in Renaissance art, and he will be prepping us for our stops in Florence, Rome and Venice with lectures on Michelangelo, Bernini and Titian.  I am also especially looking forward to visits to Arles and Marseilles, where Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne produced some of their best work, pilgrimages that I am hoping will provide me with even more inspiration for my Modern Art course in the fall.

As you can see, my next month will be a mix of old and new, ancient and modern, and all in the company of like-minded travelers and a cruise staff that makes Voyages to Antiquity cruises truly trips of a lifetime.  If it sounds like I’m advertising for the company, I am!  For those interested in history and culture, I very highly recommend that you consider sailing with VTA: http://us.voyagestoantiquity.com/.  Maybe you’ll see me on board!

As time and internet connection permit, I’ll try to update this blog with progress and pictures.  We board in Cannes on Saturday!

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Time to order your Mayan calendar refills!

Big news from the world of archaeology today, and the human race breathes a collective sigh of relief.  Researchers at the ancient city of Xultun, in Guatemala, have announced the discovery of a stone-carved Mayan calendar that continues far past December 21, 2012, the date on which a calendar in the well-known (and now infamous) Dresden  codex ends.  Conspiracy theorists have long predicted that the Mayans knew something we don’t, and that they carefully selected 12/21/12 as the last date on their calendar because it would be, literally, mankind’s final day on earth — whether because of some cataclysmic natural destruction event, because an itchy-trigger-fingered head of state launched a nuclear arsenal and set Doomsday in motion, or because the Mothership was scheduled to return and take all the Movementarians off to Blisstonia before destroying our blighted planet.  This newly-discovered calendar (actually a lunar table indicating recurring cycles of the moon) was created in the ninth century AD, about 500 years earlier than the Dresden codex, and covers some 7,000 years of predicted time.  This means two things: 1)  The Mayans had no reason to believe that the world would end eight months from now, and 2) I wasted an awful lot tempera paint on that “Welcome, Aliens” banner.

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The “Cheesy” Phrase on our Great Seal

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website www.romanreligion.org.

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website http://www.romanreligion.org.

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”  So reads the Great Seal of the United States of America.  We are a nation made up of  many peoples from varied backgrounds, all of whom come together under a flag that stands for the ideals of personal liberty and equality.  This noble concept of our rich and multifaceted nation is often expressed using another metaphor: a melting pot.  Though that phrase really refers to a crucible in which different metals are (s)melted and mixed together, to be honest, it’s always made me think of fondu.  Silly as that may sound, our motto e pluribus unum really DOES have a culinary pedigree.  The first appearance of the phrase occurs in a Latin poem called Moretum (“Garlic Cheese”).  In it, the writer (who some scholars think may have been Virgil, although that is not certain) describes a man making a simple lunch dish:

“First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander.  With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave-girl for a mortar.  He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water, and puts it to the hollow mortar.  He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs.  With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture.  His hand circles.  Gradually the ingredients lose their individuality; out of the many colors emerges one (color est e pluribus unus) – neither wholly green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white (since tinged by so many herbs).  The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits.  So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together.  Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum.  Meanwhile busy Scybale has baked a loaf.  This he takes, after wiping his hands…” (Moretum 88-120, translation by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger).

Perhaps if we could get more people to sit down together for a simple homemade meal, we might come closer to solving some of our disagreements in this grand melting pot of a nation.

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