Tag Archives: archaeology

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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Prostitutes and Pastry: Ancient and Modern Erice

A few days ago, I wrote briefly about the Sicilian town of Trapani, which is where our ship first docked on the island.  On a mountain almost 2500 feet above that city lies the medieval fortress town of Erice, a beautiful site with a long and interesting history.

Erice, called Eryx by the Greeks and Romans, was founded by the Elymians, a somewhat mysterious pre-Greek people who inhabited western Sicily.  It is possible that they were from Anatolia, and that there is some truth to the legend that Trapani was founded by Trojans fleeing the destruction of their city, although it is also just as possible that they were migrants from Anatolia who left that area for more benign reasons than the Trojan War.  In any case, by the 5th century B.C., the town was for all intents and purposes dependent on nearby Segesta (see my earlier blog post on that beautiful site).  Like many of the important cities in this area, Eryx was eventually taken by the Carthaginians, and their Phoenician language appears on coins of the city from the fourth century B.C.  The surviving sections of defensive walls from this early period also show the marks of Phoenician masons.

It was the Phoenicians who established the worship of the goddess Astarte and built a temple in her honor on the slopes of the mountain above Trapani.  The rites of Astarte, a goddess of fertility, included the practice of sacred prostitution.  The temple and its prostitutes were understandably popular with sailors who made port at Trapani.  Although the steep climb of 2500 feet must have been somewhat daunting, the payoff seems to have been worth it – the cult retained its popularity through the later Greek and Roman centuries.  Depending on the culture in power on Sicily at various times, the patron goddess of the cult was known as Astarte, Aphrodite (by the Greeks), or Venus (by the Romans), all names for the same powerful deity of feminine regenerative fertility.  In fact, it is very likely that the worship of such a fertility goddess pre-dated even the Phoenicians, although they are the ones who seem to have institutionalized the celebration of her cult.  The temple of Astarte-Aphrodite-Venus guaranteed the popularity of Eryx in antiquity.  Unfortunately, it is now completely overbuilt by a 12th-century Norman castle known, appropriately, as the Castello di Venere.

The Norman castle at Erice (Castello di Venere)

Venus’s presence also lent credence to the Roman claim that the city was founded by the Trojans, because their leader Aeneas was believed to have been descended from that goddess.  In the Aeneid, Virgil includes a scene in which Aeneas arrives at the site of Eryx and founds the temple in her honor (Aen. 5.759 ff.).  So taken were the Romans with this popular goddess (known to them as Venus Erycina) that they exported her worship throughout the empire and built temples for her even at Rome.

As I mentioned, her temple is unfortunately not visible at modern Erice.  What IS to be found there, however, is a gorgeous medieval walled town.  A very curvy and slightly harrowing bus ride, made all the more nail-bitingly nerve-wracking by the thick fog that had settled over the coast, took us up to the town (it is also possible to ride up by cable car).

The view from the road to Erice on a foggy day.

As with many medieval towns that are now tourist attractions, Erice hosts plenty of souvenir shops but still manages to retain much of its charm in its winding, narrow streets.  Some of the shops even boast an impressive pedigree, continuing the tradition of baked goods produced for centuries at some of the religious institutions in the town.  The “Old Confectioners of the Convent” (Antica Pasticceria del Convento), for example, is well worth a visit, and is frequently cited as one of the best pastry shops in all of Sicily.

"Bellibrutti" (unsightly beauty), a popular traditional pastry at the Antica Pasticceria del Convento

It was founded by  Maria Grammatico, an orphan who learned to cook in the kitchens of one of Erice’s several convents in the 1950s.  Her story is recounted in the book Bitter Almonds, complete with traditional recipes.

An important monument is the Chiesa Matrice, the 14th-century cathedral, which has elements of both the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The Chiesa Matrice

The church is dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption.  This dedication was not made lightly: highlighting the virginity of Mary made a powerful statement about her triumph over the fertility cult for which ancient Eryx had been famous.

The Gothic rose window of the Chiesa Matrice

Additionally, the feast of the Virgin of the Assumption is celebrated in August (on the 15th), which was also the month in which the most important festival of Astarte-Aphrodite-Venus fell.  In a new Christian world, Mary the Virgin had replaced the prostitutes of Venus.

In addition to its importance as a historical site, Erice also draws crowds of a different and somewhat unexpected sort.  Since 1963, the town has played host to the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture (Ettore Majorana was an important Sicilian physicist).  Every summer, scientists flock to Erice to discuss advances in cutting-edge research.  The theme for 2011 was “The Second Workshop on Hadron Beam Therapy of Cancer”; in 2010 it was “Advances in Nanophotonics III: Plasmonics and Energy Efficiency.”  The classes and seminars are hosted in historic buildings that once served religious and civic functions, such as the San Francesco monastery.  

San Francesco Monastery, now home to the Eugene P. Wigner Institute with the Enrico Fermi Lecture Hall

It is quite fascinating that this tiny city, with a heritage reaching back into the first millenium B.C., now plays host to some of the world’s foremost scientific minds and witnesses the discovery and dissemination of advanced scientific theories.  Whether a traveler is interested in the ancient history of Sicily, in culinary traditions, or in the important work of modern men and women of science, Erice has something for everyone.

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The next stop on our tour of the Mediterranean islands was Corsica’s neighbor to the south, Sardinia.  In an illuminating on-board lecture by Prof. Paula Lazrus of the Archaeological Institute of America, we had learned that Corsica and Sardinia were once part of the same landmass.  Geological evidence indicates that at some point in the distant past, after breaking apart into two separate areas of land, one of the two had rotated approximately 90 degrees.  (Paula, if you read this, maybe you could clarify the point in a Comment below since my explanation is lacking?).  Like Corsica, Sardinia has its own language (Sardinian) that may incorporate elements of the language of the ancient Etruscans from mainland Italy as well as of that of the Lydians from Anatolia (western Turkey).  Those with an interest in linguistics may wish to consult the highly technical Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sardinian_language.


We visited the island on a grey day and made port in Cagliari, on the southern coast of the Island.   Sardinia is important for ancient historians for several reasons, and it has much to offer to those with interests in specific ancient cultures.  It is perhaps best known for the remains of the Punic occupation of the island.  The term “Punic” refers to the Carthaginian culture, a major ancient power and rival of Rome whose capital was located at Carthage (modern-day Tunis, Tunisia) on the north coast of Africa.  We were given a choice between two excursions that highlighted several phases of the island’s history: a visit to the Punic-Roman city of Nora, which boasts a fine amphitheater, or to the island of Sant’Antioco, which preserves traces of the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman presences on Sardinia.  I selected the trip to Sant’Antioco, located southwest of the main island of Sardinia and connected by a highway bridge, a modern version of an artificial isthmus constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C.

Sant’Antioco’s history is long.  The Nuragic civilization, indigenous to Sardinia, flourished from the 18th century B.C. probably into the 2nd century A.D.  We did not have time to visit any of the nuarghe, the tower-like monuments from which the culture takes its name.  This was unfortunate because the other Lecturer on board, Prof. Lazrus, is a specialist in the Nuragic period.  A Phoenician settlement, called Solki (the Romans rendered it Sulci), was founded on what is now Sant’Antioco in the 8th century B.C. and  occupation has continued unbroken down to the present day.  It is impossible in a short blog to discuss all of the history, so I will only mention highlights here.

The ancient ruins at Solki are really made up of three main parts: a Punic-Roman acropolis, a Punic necropolis, and a series of hypogea.  Because of time limitations, we only passed by the acropolis on our way to the other sites.  Ongoing excavations continue to reveal monuments from both the Carthaginian and later Roman periods:

The ancient acropolis, with Punic and Roman ruins

The Punic necropolis is a fascinating site.  In terms of its importance in the study of Punic burial customs, it is second only to the necropolis of Carthage itself.  It has been called a tophet (literally, “roasting place”), a term found in the Bible and in several Roman authors in reference to a location for the ritual sacrifice of Carthaginian children by burning.

View of the Carthaginian tophet with reproductions of burial urns - the originals are in the nearby museum

Archaeologists have recovered the remains of 3300 child burials, and it was long postulated that this WAS a site for human sacrifice.  However, more recent analysis of the remains of the bodies uncovered little evidence to support the claim that the infants were ritually killed.  It seems more likely that it was simply a place for the burial of young children who had died of natural causes, a theory that is supported by inscriptions recovered at the site mentioning the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit, two Carthaginian deities associated with the protection of children.

View of the tophet towards the sea - the excellent museum is visible in the middle ground

The evidence from other Carthaginian sites, such as a tophet at Motiya (Sicily) DO seem to point to child-sacrifice, however, so the question of its importance and prevalence in Carthaginian culture remains open.

The tophet is not the only important burial site on Sant’Antioco.  Within walking distance is a fascinating series of Punic hypogea.  A hypogeum is an underground chamber, and the term most often refers to such areas when used for burials.  On Sant’Antioco, areas of the island are composed of soft tufa, which is easily dug out.  This area lent itself to development as a burial ground by the Carthaginians, and the hypogea were dug and used between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C.  Though only a small section are open to tourists today, archaeologists estimate that as many as 1,500 hypogea were in use over that period of time.

Reconstruction of a burial inside a Punic hypogeum.

Each hypogeum was a family tomb and could house the bodies of up to twenty individuals.  The dead were inhumed rather than cremated – they were laid in the tombs on wooden stretchers or in sarcophagi.  Burial goods have been discovered in abundance, placed below the wooden stretchers and in niches surrounding the bodies.

Detail of burial goods (reproductions)

These tombs served much the same purpose as modern family burial vaults: when someone died, they were interred and the tomb was sealed up with a rock and the entrance then covered with dirt.  Hopefully, by the next time it was necessary to bury a relative, the body had completed its decomposition.

The Romans continued to use the hypogea, as did the Early Christians on the island.  In modern times, as the island suffered extreme rates of poverty, some of the less-fortunate converted the hypogea into private homes.  Though some view this practice as macabre, it does not seem so to me at all – it seems, rather, like a very economical re-use of structures that were probably pretty comfortable, as underground houses tend to preserve very pleasant temperatures year-round.  The local museum has done an excellent job of displaying both the ancient Punic history of the tombs in their original forms and the modern history of the tombs as homes for the Sardinians.

Reconstruction of a modern bedroom in the Punic hypogea

Other aspects of the modern history of Sant’Antioco are also preserved in a small but excellent ethnographic museum near the hypogea.  Inside, a visitor can see beautiful examples of the local handmade pasta (a traditional Sardinian dish: fried ravioli stuffed with cheese and grated orange or lemon, and dressed with warm, bitter honey – oh my!) and exquisitely-formed breads and marzipans.

Beautiful Sardinian marzipan, traditionally prepared for Easter

Also of interest in the museum is a display explaining the local handicraft of producing bisso.  Bisso is a cloth woven from the beard of a certain large mollusk, the Noble Pen Shell (pino nobilis).  A traditional craft, the weaving of bisso is now greatly in decline, and the skill is in danger of being lost.

Another pleasant aspect of a visit to Sardinia is that the island is a botanist’s delight.

A home garden in Sant'Antioco

Like so many of the Mediterranean islands, the climate of Sardinia lends itself to the cultivation of a range of plants, and many types were imported by the people who passed through the island over the centuries.

One man's weed...

For example, the beautiful flowering bush you see here, whose name I do not know, apparently originated in Australia – the Aussies in our group could not believe that I was stopping to snap photos of such a bothersome weed!

Sardinia is definitely a stop that would repay more time spent.  The physical remains of the many layers of history laid atop one another are still clear and evocative, and the unique elements of its modern culture make it a delightful place to explore.


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