To open a medieval reliquary containing a saint’s bones, you have to have a good reason, said Sabine Sten.
Sten is an osteoarchaeologist (a type of scientist who studiesskeletal remains from archaeological sites) at Uppsala University in Sweden. Two years ago, she got permission to open a reliquary (a container used to hold objects deemed holy) at the Uppsala Cathedral, to study the bones of Erik Jedvardsson, a medieval Swedish king turned saint.
“We have analyzed thousands of individuals from the medieval period in Sweden, but the people we lack resources from [are] the people like Erik, who have high status,” Sten told Live Science. The bones hadn’t been examined since 1946—before the rise of radiocarbon dating and DNA tests. After a new analysis, Sten and her team announced that Erik’s remains may be authentic, and could reveal more information about his healthy life and gruesome death.
For almost as long as Christianity has been around, Christian relics have been objects of worship, but they became increasingly popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. Churches across the continent claimed to have venerable artifacts like the foreskin of Jesus, as well as the nails and cross used in his crucifixion, and the tooth of Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all holy relics hold up to scientific scrutiny. For instance, a 2010 study in the journal Forensic Science International concluded that the charred relics of Joan of Arc kept in a glass bottle in France were fake (and even included some cat bone fragments). And radiocarbon dating tests showed that the two skulls in a relic shrine in Sweden thought to belong to the 14th century St. Birgitta and her daughter, Katarina, were actually separated by about 200 years —one was much older, and the other much younger, than they should have been.