Historians and archaeologists have argued for generations about just where the bones of kindly St. Nicholas—the Christian Saint on which the legend of Santa Claus is based—are buried. Turkey, Italy and even Ireland have all made claims. Now, as Sean Coughlan at the BBC reports, researchers are turning to radiocarbon dating for answers, discovering at least one bit of bone claimed to be St. Nick’s is the correct age.
The bone is a fragment of pelvis that is currently owned by Father Dennis O’Neill of St. Martha of Bethany Church in Illinois. Researchers from University of Oxford dated the bone using the decay of carbon-14 as their timeline. Based on this analysis, they conclude that the bone hails from the 4th century A.D. St. Nicholas is believed to have died in 343 A.D., loosely supporting the claim of origin.
“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest,” says Tom Higham of the Oxford Relics Cluster, who has examined many relics in the past and who tested the St. Nicholas bone, in a press release. “This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself."
However, actually confirming that the bone actually belonged to the saint is tricky, if not impossible. He led an interesting life; as bishop of Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey, he was known for his generosity and for leaving coins in the shoes of the poor. But what happened to his body after his death, is just as compelling. Saint Nicholas’s bones were interred at a church in Myra, present day Demre, after his death. But it's believed that in 1087, traders from the city of Bari in Italy broke into the crypt and stole his bones, bringing them to the basilica in their hometown where they are still revered.
Venice, however, claims that traders from their city stole the bones 1099. Then there’s the claim that Norman crusaders nabbed the bones, bringing them to Kilkenny, Ireland. Even more confusing, archaeologists in Turkey claimed in October that even if traders or crusaders did steal the bones from they church, they got the wrong guy. So the body of St. Nicholas might still be in his original tomb under the church in Demre.
So how did St. Nicholas’ pelvis end up in a Chicago suburb? Father O’Neill has amassed a collection of artifacts related to saints over many years. This particular fragment can by traced to Lyon, France. Interestingly, the remains in the church in Bari include only the left ilium, or upper part of the pelvis, while Father O’Neill’s fragment is from the lower left, raising the possibility that it might be from the same set of remains. Other research suggests that the 500 bone fragments venerated in Venice are complementary to the pieces held in Bari, which hints they might all belong to a single individual as well. But whether these fragments contain the rest of the pelvis still remains unknown.
Much more work needs to be done to proclaim St. Nick to be found. For one, researchers need to date more of the fragments to test whether they all come from the same period of time. DNA testing may also offer clues to the bones' late owner.
Even if the fragments all belong to the same person, connecting them to St. Nick might still be impossible. As Brian Handwerk reports for National Geographic, though Bari has the best claim for the bones, a dozen churches around the world contend they too have bits and pieces of his body.
This means that at least part of the story is true: Santa Claus is everywhere at once.