One of the most revered Christian saints, St Nicholas’ remains are held in the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Southern Puglia, since 1087, where they are buried in a crypt beneath a marble altar, with others preserved in the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice.
St Nicholas is thought to have lived in Myra, Asia Minor, which is now modern day Turkey. According to legend he was widely known for his generosity, a trait that inspired the legend of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day.
Using a micro-sample of bone fragment, Professor Tom Higham and Dr Georges Kazan, the Directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College's Advanced Studies Centre, have for the first time tested one of these bones. The radiocarbon dating results pinpoint the relic’s age to the fourth century AD - the time that some historians allege that St Nicholas died (around 343 AD). The results suggest that the bones could in principle be authentic and belong to the saint.
Professor Higham said: ‘Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.’
However, Professor Higham concludes: ‘Science is not able to definitely prove that it is, it can only prove that it is not, however’.
The team are now examining up to 500 other bones which are alleged to belong to St Nicholas, to see if they come from the same body.