Da Vinci Code crew's leap of faith
From Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the Indiana Jones films, the age-old fascination with holy relics has inspired pilgrims, crusaders and writers alike. Now Oxford University is dispatching some of its most distinguished academics on the quest, setting up a new research unit - with expertise ranging from genetics to theology and much in between - dedicated to studying Christian relics.The group, which looks destined to be nicknamed the "Da Vinci Code Department", will attempt to separate the myth from the reality of venerated items across Europe and beyond that have inspired devotion and macabre fascination in equal measure.In what is thought to be the first research body of its type, the unit, based in Keble College, will bring together experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics, osteology - the study of bones - chemistry, geography and archaeology with leading authorities in ancient Greek and Hebrew, Byzantine studies, ecclesiastical history and theology.But if its members' past work is anything to go by, its findings could spell dismay as much as delight for the devoted.They include scientists who effectively debunked the notion that the Turin Shroud could be the imprint of the face of Christ by dating it to the medieval period.Professor Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford radiocarbon accelerator unit and founder of the new relics research "cluster", previously worked in teams that established that a collection of bones found in Wales could not be those of St David, and that a fragment of wood venerated for centuries in Ireland as a piece of the "true cross" was about 1000 years too young to fit the bill.The team has a waiting list of relics across Europe to be investigated .As a scientist, the prospect of the team's work inspiring religious devotion and even pilgrimage is, Higham admits, surreal."It is strange. We have had a few cases like that in the last few years."With thousands of revered relics held in churches around the world purporting to be remains of saints, for every John the Baptist or St Luke discovery many more will prove to be false."We realise that the vast majority of the items can't possibly be what they claim to be," he said."But we are more interested in how they move around and where they come from. We are interested in linkages between relics, which might tell us about the mechanism of how the material moved."The reaction of churches to the possibility of revered relics being subjected to academic scrutiny has been mixed."There are times when you get people who would be less keen to give permission. Their relics are visited by pilgrims and there is an associated tourist trade associated . and they don't want the story that they are dealing in to be disproved," the professor explained."But most of the time in western Europe a lot of the relics are just left to one side and are not used."Yet for all the serious academic goals of the unit, Higham is relaxed about the suggestion of a Da Vinci Code element to his work."Yes, I have had some really interesting experiences working on relics," he explained."We've been in several important churches in the Low Countries, for example, where they have relics that have been in storage, locked away for some time, and we have been privileged to look inside and found little pieces of paper with information about whose bones they are said to be."At the moment we've got some interesting work that we are doing that we can't really talk about."It is a secret he is not quite ready to reveal to the world just yet.