PAUL SIEVEKING finds a new rest­ing place for St Ni­cholas and ev­i­dence of a very early vin­tage

Fortean Times - - Archeology -


The rea­son why an­cient Ro­man con­crete sea walls have lasted more than two mil­len­nia while modern con­crete, em­bed­ded with steel, crum­bles within decades has long puz­zled en­gi­neers. Pliny the El­der, writ­ing in AD 79, noted that con­crete struc­tures in an­cient har­bours “be­came a sin­gle stone mass, im­preg­nable to the waves, and every day stronger,” de­spite be­ing bat­tered con­stantly by sea­wa­ter. Now US sci­en­tists think they have found the an­swer: when salt­wa­ter mixes with the vol­canic ash and lime used by the Ro­mans, it leads to the growth of in­ter­lock­ing min­er­als, mak­ing the con­crete vir­tu­ally im­pen­e­tra­ble.

Ro­man en­gi­neers made con­crete by mix­ing vol­canic ash with lime and wa­ter to make a mor­tar, and then added chunks of vol­canic rock. The com­bi­na­tion pro­duced what is called a poz­zuolanic re­ac­tion, named af­ter the city of Poz­zuoli in the Bay of Naples, prompt­ing the for­ma­tion of crys­tals in the mix­ture as it sets. These are made of min­er­als such as phillip­site and alu­mi­nous to­ber­morite. The same re­ac­tion hap­pens in na­ture, and clumps of nat­u­ral ce­ment can be found in vol­canic ar­eas, which is pos­si­bly what gave the Ro­mans the idea. The ex­act recipe for Ro­man con­crete has been lost, but the team, led by Marie Jack­son, a ge­ol­ogy re­search pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Utah, is work­ing on a ce­ment that will al­low sea de­fences to last for cen­turies. D.Tele­graph, Guardian, 4 July 2017.


Archæol­o­gists be­lieve they have lo­cated the tomb of the orig­i­nal Fa­ther Christ­mas – St Ni­cholas – be­neath a church in Demre, An­talya, built on the ru­ins of an­cient Myra, birth­place of the fourth cen­tury bishop. Cemil Karabayram, head of An­talya’s mon­u­ment author­ity, said the crypt was dis­cov­ered in the cen­tre of the Byzan­tine church dur­ing an elec­tronic sur­vey. “We be­lieve this shrine has not been dam­aged at all, but it is quite dif­fi­cult to get to as there are mo­saics on the floor,” he said. Ex­ca­va­tion work will al­low schol­ars to ac­cess the tem­ple grounds be­low the church to de­ter­mine whether Ni­cholas’s body is there.

St Ni­cholas of Myra was known for his gen­eros­ity to­wards chil­dren. He had a rep­u­ta­tion for se­cret gift-giv­ing, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a prac­tice cel­e­brated on his feast day, 6 De­cem­ber. At the time of his death in AD 343, he was in­terred where the church at Demre now stands. This was built to host his tomb and was com­pleted in AD 520. It was pre­vi­ously thought that mer­chants car­ried out a pi­ous theft in 1087, smug­gling the saint’s bones to Bari in Italy. Chris­tians still visit the site of what was thought to be the fi­nal rest­ing place of the stolen bones in Bari’s Basil­ica di San Ni­cola. Some of the bones ended up in Venice, and a frag­ment of pelvis kept in St Martha of Bethany church in Illi­nois and said to be­long to St Ni­cholas has re­cently been car­bon­dated in Ox­ford to the fourth cen­tury AD. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the pelvis be­longs to the saint, merely that such an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is not im­pos­si­ble. How­ever, based on lo­cal doc­u­ments and ce­ram­ics, Turk­ish ex­perts are now claim­ing the bones re­moved in 1087 be­long to an­other lo­cal pri­est rather than the cel­e­brated bishop. D.Tele­graph, Guardian, 5 Oct; Metro, D.Ex­press, 7 Dec 2017.


Earth­en­ware jars from about 6000 BC, found south of Tbil­isi in Ge­or­gia, have re­vealed the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of grape wine-mak­ing. Some of the jars bore im­ages of grape clus­ters and a man danc­ing. The finds were pub­lished in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “We be­lieve this is the old­est ex­am­ple of the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of a wild-grow­ing Eurasian grapevine solely for the pro­duc­tion of wine,” said co-au­thor Stephen Batiuk, a se­nior re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Toronto. “Wine is cen­tral to civil­i­sa­tion as we know it in the West. As a medicine, so­cial lu­bri­cant, mind-al­ter­ing sub­stance and highly val­ued com­mod­ity, wine be­came the fo­cus of re­li­gious cults, phar­ma­copoeias, cuisines, economies and so­ci­ety in the an­cient Near East.”

The pot­tery jars were dis­cov­ered in two Ne­olithic vil­lages, called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, about 30 miles (50km) south of Tbil­isi. Tell­tale chem­i­cal signs of wine were dis­cov­ered in eight jars, the old­est one dat­ing from about 5,980 BC. Large jars called qvevri, sim­i­lar to the an­cient ones, are still used for wine-mak­ing in Ge­or­gia. Mr Batiuk said the wine was prob­a­bly made in a sim­i­lar way to the qvevri method to­day “where the grapes are crushed and the fruit, stems and seeds are all fer­mented to­gether”.

Pre­vi­ously, the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of grape wine-mak­ing had been found in the Za­gros Moun­tains of Iran in 1968 and dated to 5,400-5,000 BC. In 2011, a wine press and fer­men­ta­tion jars from about 6,000 years ago were found in a cave in Ar­me­nia [ FT278:23]. Or­ganic residue in stor­age jars found in a cave in Si­cily in 2012 showed that wine was made here 6,000 years ago. The world’s ear­li­est non-grape based wine is be­lieved to be a fer­mented al­co­holic bev­er­age of rice, honey and fruit found in China and dat­ing to about 7,000 BC. Guardian, 30 Aug; BBC News, 13 Nov 2017.

ABOVE: St Ni­cholas church in Demre, An­talya. LEFT: One of the earth­en­ware jars from Tbil­isi.

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