Bones in Motion: Long Distance Relic Translations in Late Antiquity

My dear colleague, Maijastina Kahlos from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies invited me on a symposium entitled “Mediterranean flows: People, ideas and objects in motion”. According to the conference description, the “the symposium seeks to gather discussions set chronologically in antiquity towards current issues about movement of people, goods and ideas. […] As an interdisciplinary initiative, this symposium will bring together a diverse group of specialists from fields such as history and archaeology, sociology, anthropology, classical philology and philosophy, theology and religious studies.” This is a very exciting idea, particularly bringing together scholars usually working in isolation. In the retrospective, I regret that Samuel Cohen and I did not invite a speaker for our Oxford Workshop focusing on contemporary issues.

The famous ‘Trier ivory’ showing the arrival of relics in Constantinople

Anyway, my proposal aims to shed some light on a quite peculiar aspect of moving bones, translating them in long(er) distances. Here is the abstract:

The rapid rise of the relics’ cult in the fourth century changed ‘overnight’ the distinctively reserved classical attitude towards human’s mortal remains. After a short period of initial hesitation, martyrs’ bodies were more and more frequently exhumed and relocated, which happened in most cases in geographic vicinity to the tomb. Sometimes, however, bodies or body parts crossed the Roman Empire and traveled thousands of miles before they found their final(?) resting places. This contribution takes a closer look into the long distance translations of relics in the period before their commercialisation. It aims to explore their underlying mechanisms and asks, why martyrs’ bodies have been moved across the Empire in the first place; how the communities tied to the cult were evolving after the removal or arrival of the sacred bodies; and which narratives, customs and traditions have been ‘imported’ together with the mortal remains.