Oxford University sets up new centre on religious relics

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Oct 14, 2015 00:19 IST

Are religious relics imbued with miraculous powers? This may be the belief among many Christians, but a new centre at the University of Oxford will now use scientific methods to assess their authenticity and learn more about their history.

Ancient Christian relics are objects that survive from ancient times, often associated with a saint’s body or their belongings, and usually kept as objects of historical interest or spiritual devotion. The centre was launched on Tuesday, a university release said.

For the first time, a large team of researchers will use radiocarbon dating, genetics and theology to learn more about the origin and movement of religious relics that have been attributed to specific individuals.

The release added that researchers will use the latest scientific methods, such as higher precision radiocarbon dating that can pinpoint chronologies; DNA analysis that establishes common ancestries and the probable geographic origin of an individual; and historical and material evidence to identify objects of special interest and set scientific data in their proper context.

Oxford researchers have previously used the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit to date the Shroud of Turin, regarded by some as the burial cloth of Christ. Three university labs were involved and between them concluded that the cloth was manufactured between 1260 and 1390.

Thomas Higham, deputy director of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, said: “It’s the first time that scholars from many different disciplines have collaborated in the ongoing study of ancient religious relics”.

“We will not be able to say with 100% certainty that they belong to a particular individual who is celebrated as a saint. Nevertheless, 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”.

Georges Kazan of the School of Archaeology said: “The Christian belief that relics were imbued with miraculous powers, granting benefits both in this world and the next, resulted in widespread demand and circulation, particularly in The Middle Ages”.

He added: “Scientific analysis has now shown that a number of relics attributed to specific saints are counterfeit or misidentified, but others may be of the time and place where a particular “holy” person lived.”

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