Fourth century bone may have belonged to St Nicholas

A pelvis bone said to belong to the fourth-century saint who inspired the story of Father Christmas could indeed be from the legend himself, scientists have said.

Researchers at the University of Oxford radiocarbon tested the the bone said to be from St Nicholas, and found it dates from the correct historical period.

While they cannot categorically prove they are from the Christian saint, the team said the results pinpoint the relic's age to the fourth century AD.

This is the period widely believed to have been when St Nicholas died, around 343 AD.

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A fragment of bone (pictured) said to belong to the fourth-century saint who inspired the story of Father Christmas could indeed be from the legend himself. Researchers found the relic, long venerated as the bones of St Nicholas, dates from the correct historical period

A fragment of bone (pictured) said to belong to the fourth-century saint who inspired the story of Father Christmas could indeed be from the legend himself. Researchers found the relic, long venerated as the bones of St Nicholas, dates from the correct historical period

SANTA'S BONES

St Nicholas, one of the most revered Christian saints, is thought to have lived in Myra, which is now modern day Turkey. 

According to legend he was a wealthy man widely known for his generosity - a trait that inspired the story of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day. 

After his death in the year 343, Nicholas was buried in his hometown of Myra.

Arab forces who occupied Myra in the 11th century excavated the bones and brought them back to the Italian port of Bari where they are buried to this day, it is widely claimed.

But over the years, relic fragments have been acquired by churches around the world.

Some archaeologists have suggested the wrong bones were removed from Myra, and that the ones moved to Italy belonged to an anonymous priest.

'Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest,' said study coauthor Professor Tom Higham.

'This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.'

St Nicholas, one of the most revered Christian saints, is thought to have lived in Myra, which is now modern day Turkey.

According to legend he was a wealthy man widely known for his generosity.

The Bishop was famed for his secret gift giving, such as putting coins into the shoes of people who left them out for him.

St Nicholas's giving spirit inspired the story of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day.

Most of his remains have been held in the Basilica di San Nicola, in Bari, Italy, since 1087, where they are buried in a crypt beneath a marble altar, but over the years relic fragments have been acquired by churches around the world.

According to legend, St Nicholas was a wealthy man widely known for his generosity - a trait that inspired the story of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day (stock image)

According to legend, St Nicholas was a wealthy man widely known for his generosity - a trait that inspired the story of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day (stock image)

St Nicholas (pictured) was known for his secret gift giving, such as putting coins into the shoes of people who left them out for him

St Nicholas (pictured) was known for his secret gift giving, such as putting coins into the shoes of people who left them out for him

As many as 500 of St Nicholas's bone fragments are believed to be held in Venice.

The bone analysed in Oxford - a pelvis fragment - is owned by Father Dennis O'Neill, of St Martha of Bethany Church, in Illinois, United States.

Dr Georges Kazan, another director of the Oxford Relics Cluster, said: 'These results encourage us to now turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual.

'We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics, or DNA testing.

'It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine.'

But there may never be any way of knowing whether the bones really were from the real St Nicholas.

Professor Higham added: 'Science is not able to definitely prove that it is - it can only prove that it is not.'

The new find adds to the long-running debate on where St Nicholas's remains now lie. Pictured is what was believed to be the Saint's original crypt

The new find adds to the long-running debate on where St Nicholas's remains now lie. Pictured is what was believed to be the Saint's original crypt

THE ORIGINS OF SANTA CLAUS 

St Nicholas was Bishop of Myrna, in what is now Turkey, in the 4th century, and was known for his generosity towards children.

He was known for his secret gift giving, such as putting coins into the shoes of people who left them out for him.

This practice is still celebrated on his national feast day, December 6.

The bishop was popularised in 6th century Europe as Father Christmas, who secretly gave gifts to young children.

In modern depictions, Saint Nicholas or 'Santa Claus' is presented as a portly old man dressed in red and white with a bushy beard

In modern depictions, Saint Nicholas or 'Santa Claus' is presented as a portly old man dressed in red and white with a bushy beard

Young Dutch arrivals to the United States called Saint Nicholas 'Sinterklaas', which later became Santa Claus.

In modern depictions, Saint Nicholas is presented as a portly old man dressed in red and white with a bushy beard.

But some have suggested the original character wore green, and that his modern red-and-white colours are the result of a 1930s marketing campaign from soft drinks brand Coca Cola.

The new find adds to the long-running debate on where St Nicholas's remains now lie. 

In October, archaeologists claimed they had found ruins beneath an ancient Turkish church that could house the remains of the saint behind Santa Claus.

Located in the Antalya province in southern Turkey, Myra is known to be the birthplace of the much-revered Christian saint St Nicholas.

In October, archaeologists claimed they had found ruins beneath an ancient Turkish church (pictured) that could house the remains of the saint behind Santa Claus. Gaps underneath the church could contain the Saint's remains, experts said

In October, archaeologists claimed they had found ruins beneath an ancient Turkish church (pictured) that could house the remains of the saint behind Santa Claus. Gaps underneath the church could contain the Saint's remains, experts said

Located in the Antalya province in southern Turkey, Myra is known to be the birthplace of the much-revered Christian saint St Nicholas. Pictured is what is believed to have been the church the Saint was born and died in

Located in the Antalya province in southern Turkey, Myra is known to be the birthplace of the much-revered Christian saint St Nicholas. Pictured is what is believed to have been the church the Saint was born and died in

During electronic surveys researchers found there were gaps beneath the ancient St Nicholas Church.

They now believe it could contain an undamaged grave and more bones of the revered saint.

Many believe the Saint's remains now lie in Italy after they were removed from Turkey in the 11th Century.

But the Turkish archaeologists suggest the wrong bones were removed, and that the ones moved to Italy in fact belonged to an anonymous priest. 

WHAT IS RADIOCARBON DATING? 

Radiocarbon dating works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon.

Isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons in their nucleus, but different numbers of neutrons. 

This means that although they are very similar chemically, they have different masses.

While the lighter isotopes 12C and 13C are stable, the heaviest isotope 14C (radiocarbon) is radioactive. This means its nucleus is so large that it is unstable.

Over time 14C decays to nitrogen (14N). It is then oxidised to create 14CO2, which is dispersed through the atmosphere and mixed with 12CO2 and 13CO2.

Every plant and animal in this chain will therefore have the same amount of 14C compared to 12C as the atmosphere (the 14C:12C ratio).

When living things die, tissue is no longer being replaced and the radioactive decay of 14C becomes apparent. Around 55,000 years later, so much 14C has decayed that what remains can no longer be measured.

Radioactive decay can be used as a 'clock' because it is unaffected by physical and chemical conditions. 

In 5,730 years half of the 14C in a sample will decay.

Therefore, if we know the 14C:12C ratio at the time of death and the ratio today, we can calculate how much time has passed.

Source: The Conversation 

Many believe the Saint's remains now lie in Italy after they were removed from Turkey in the 11th Century. But the Turkish archaeologists suggest the wrong bones were removed, and that the ones moved to Italy in fact belonged to an anonymous priest

Many believe the Saint's remains now lie in Italy after they were removed from Turkey in the 11th Century. But the Turkish archaeologists suggest the wrong bones were removed, and that the ones moved to Italy in fact belonged to an anonymous priest