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Myra Andriake Excavations

St. Nick's Real Hometown Is an Ancient City in Turkey Entombed in Mud

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Myra Andriake Excavations
A 13th-century Byzantine chapel perfectly preserved right up to the roof tiles was discovered beneath the modern city of Demre in 2009. Image credit: Myra Andriake Excavations

 
You may know that the real St. Nicholas was not a rotund, hirsute, elderly northern European who called a polar region home, but instead a wiry Greek archbishop born in what is now Turkey who lived on the sunny Mediterranean and wasn’t above brawling for God. But how much do you know about the city where he made his mark on the world?

That city is called Myra (modern Demre), and it’s located on a stunningly blue stretch of the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Nicholas’s bones may be in Bari, Italy (and reputed to leak), but some 1600 years after his death, Myra remains a major pilgrimage spot for the Orthodox faithful, who buy icons and tchotchkes from the many tourist shops.

Icon shop in Myra, modern Demre. Image credit: My Liu, Flickr // CC BY-SC-SA 2.0

 
Technically, Nicholas’s hometown was the nearby city of Patara. In Roman mythology, Patara was the birthplace of Apollo; today, it draws tourists with its expansive array of well-preserved urban ruins (and a nude beach). But it was at Myra that he became the Nicholas remembered by history.

Both Patara and Myra were once among the most powerful cities in ancient Lycia, a native culture with roots going back to the Bronze Age. (Lycians took up arms alongside the Trojans in the Iliad.) In subsequent centuries the region would be invaded by Persians, captured by the Macedonian Alexander the Great, ruled by Egyptians, Hellenized by Greeks, and eventually controlled by Romans.

Despite the constant influx of invaders over the centuries, the Lycians didn’t take kindly to foreign rule; when faced with inevitable defeat, rather than submit, the residents of Lycia’s capital city, Xanthos, committed mass suicide not once, but twice. When he entered the city in 42 BCE, Brutus is said to have wept at the sight of a woman who had hanged herself—and her child.

By the 2nd century BCE, 23 Lycian cities banded together to create one of the world’s first experiments with democracy: the Lycian League. These cities held a yearly congress every fall at Patara, where they voted on matters ranging from the military and the economy to governance and justice. A “Lyciarch,” chosen by league members annually, served a one-year post. The six largest cities, including Xanthos, Patara, and Myra, each got three votes—an early form of representation based on population. (Smaller cities got fewer votes.) More than 2000 years later, that innovation, among others, inspired both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to mention the Lycian League approvingly in the Federalist Papers.

FROM ARTEMIS TO CHRIST

Statue of Nicholas at Myra. Image credit Public Domain

 
By the time Nicholas was born, the Romans had long been in control of the region. As the Roman Empire became increasingly Christian in the early 4th century BCE under the Emperor Constantine, so too did Lycia begin to trade gods for saints. How did Nicholas become one of them?

We know few verifiable details about his early life, but he is said to have been born in the late 3rd century CE to wealthy Greek parents who died when he was young, and he gave his inheritance away to the poor. He would’ve been one of the early adopters of Christianity in the region, which at the time was still dominated by Greco-Roman beliefs.

According to some retellings, it’s in Patara that he is supposed to have first snuck around at night leaving gifts. When he learned of three impoverished young women in town who were without dowries—and therefore without marriage prospects and potentially facing a life of prostitution—he tossed a sack of gold into their house through an open window one night. It was enough to give the oldest girl a substantial dowry. To help her sisters, he subsequently threw bags of gold down the chimney (apparently the girls had closed their windows).

But it’s at Myra that Nicholas eventually became a power player in the Roman Empire. Nicholas wouldn’t have been able to predict that when he first arrived; evidence would have been everywhere of the city's pagan identity, from the temples to Greco-Roman gods to the evocative rock-cut tombs, pictured below, where likenesses of entire families were carved into the tomb entrances. While the first textual references to Myra are in the 1st century BCE, these house-style tombs, dating to the 5th century BCE, indicate the area was occupied far earlier than that.

Rock-cut tombs cut into the hills above Myra date to the 5th century BCE. Image credit: Tom Kelly, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He would have seen the restored ruins of a Roman amphitheater—the largest in Lycia—which was largely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 141 CE that leveled many Lycian cities; the whole region was (and still is) prone to quakes.

The amphitheater at Myra. Image credit: Stuart Pinfold, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He would’ve seen the Myros River coursing through—and regularly flooding—the town on its way to Andriake, Myra’s seaside port, where St. Paul stopped off briefly in the 1st century CE en route to Antioch.

And Nicholas would have seen many pagan temples—most notably the Temple of Artemis, Apollo's sister and one of the most important goddesses in Lycia. Nicholas was said to be a brawler for Christianity—and perhaps not surprisingly; he was jailed for his faith by the emperors Diocletianus and Licinius—but when Constantine took control of the entire empire in 324 CE (after a nearly 20-year battle for power), Nicholas was freed. He promptly returned to Myra, now the capital of Lycia. Appointed archbishop, he had the temple of Artemis, and several others, completely destroyed. With their destruction, Nicholas turned Myra from a Lycian capital into a Christian capital.

A year later, in 325 CE, the famous First Council of Nicaea was assembled by the emperor Constantine to establish key Christian doctrinal tenets (which became known as the Nicene Creed); by then, the faith was legal in the empire under Constantine, who was himself a Christian. Myra, with Nicholas as its representative, participated as archbishop of the council, which was attended by about 300 bishops. Nicholas strongly disagreed with an Egyptian bishop named Arias about whether Jesus was equal to God, and expressed his disapproval by slapping Arias across the face.

How fighty Nicholas became jolly St. Nick is a long story, but a lot of it has to do with his supposed miracles, which made him the patron saint of everyone from sailors to children. In one miracle, while aboard a ship returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he saved the ship from sinking, and brought a drowned sailor back to life. In another (gruesome) miracle, he resurrected three boys who had been murdered and butchered for food in a time of famine.

By the time Nicholas died on December 6, sometime in the 4th century CE (perhaps 343), he was already famous. He was buried in a church at Myra, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 529. Another church was constructed in its place. That cycle would repeat over the centuries.

The latest iteration of St. Nicholas's Church at Myra, largely restored in the 19th century. Image credit: Elelicht, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

 
Over time, Myra became a main draw for pilgrims seeking aid from Nicholas the Miracleworker, whose bones were believed to be entombed in a sarcophagus there.

Sarcophagus said to be that of St. Nicholas. Image credit: Thomas Hackl, Flickr // CC BY-NC2.0

But Myra’s fame—and easy-access coastal location—was alluring to more than pilgrims. As I wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, Arabs attacked in the 7th and 9th centuries, and in the 11th, Seljuk Turks seized the city. In 1087, Italian merchants who claimed to have been sent by the pope absconded with the bones thought be Nicholas’s and took them to Bari. By the 13th century, Myra was largely abandoned.

Yet some apparently kept the faith. Not too long before, they constructed a small chapel using stones recycled from Myra's buildings and tombs.

Not too long after, the Myros River sealed Myra’s fate. The river had long swollen over its banks as it coursed through the town, periodically flooding streets and buildings, but this time several seasons of heavy rains completely ravaged what remained of the old city. In a relatively short time, the city was entombed in at least 18 feet of mud. All that remained were the rock-cut tombs, located safely in the hills; the remains of the amphitheater; and St. Nicholas’s Church. Its survival was a kind of miracle—not supernatural, but amazing all the same.

The rest of Myra vanished from the landscape—and from memory.

But about 700 years later, in 2009, Turkish archaeologists found Myra again. And what they found is a testament to the legacy of Nicholas: a small Byzantine chapel, preserved almost perfectly under the streets of modern Demre right up to its roof tiles.

Myra Andriake Excavations

 
A team of excavators removed the layers of mud that had buried the chapel some 700 years before. It must have filled with silt relatively quickly, because its preservation is consistent from bottom to top.

Myra Andriake Excavations

 
The mud had entombed the humble building, but it had also perfectly preserved it, as they realized when they began to remove the dirt from a wall fresco.

Myra Andriake Excavations

 
Inside, they found a marvelous time capsule of Byzantine belief. The 6-foot-tall fresco seen below is unique. While its theme—the deesis (“prayer” or “supplication” in Greek)—is common enough in Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox iconography, the Myra fresco shows Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty), holding a book, while Mary and John the Baptist hold scrolls with Greek text. Mary’s scroll is a dialogue from a prayer for the Virgin Mary in which she intercedes on behalf of humanity, asking Jesus to forgive their sins. John’s quotes from John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

In most renditions, their hands are empty, with palms up in supplication. The only other examples of this unusual depiction are found in Cyprus and Egypt.

Image credit: Myra Andriake Excavations

 
Like the rest of the chapel, the altar was small and humble, but it had what might have been a very moving feature for worshippers. When sunlight poured through a cross cut into a stone wall, it beamed a cross of light onto the altar.

Myra Andriake Excavations

 
Today, Myra is one of the most popular tourist sites on the Turquoise Coast, and it’s still a favorite of pilgrims looking for a little help from St. Nicholas—especially Russian Orthodox believers.

Russian tourists posing in front of a more modern interpretation of St. Nick. Image credit: Hendo101, Flickr // CC BY-NC-NC 2.0

 
But, intriguingly, much of Myra remains encased in mud beneath Demre. In 2009, ground-penetrating radar revealed anomalies underground whose shape and size suggest walls and buildings. Is that the rest of Myra?

Archaeologists returned to Myra in August 2016 for a brief field season. Byzantine archaeologist Engin Aykurek says his team focused on cleaning the exposed remnants of the city, while antiquities specialist Nevzat Cevik focused on Andriake, Myra's well-preserved port. 

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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