Sunday 19 April 2009

Get your genu-whine Crucifiction relics 'ere, get your wallets out and come over here, gents!

Over on the Moneta-L forum they are still huffing and puffing about me making a comment on some people’s (mis)use of written sources to “authenticate” a piece of stained linen many claim to be the shroud in which Jesus was laid in the Tomb. The thread of the argument though has long been lost. I was struck by the comments of a man of the cloth, the Rev. Mr. Rob Page “a former teacher of history and an ordained deacon” remonstrating with coin collectors on the true meaning of “relics” as a focus for contemplation rather than worship. He adds that if an individual believes they are the actual object that it purports to be, “that individual gains a more personalized experience”. He continues:
When I hold a coin that I think is authentic, I experience a closer union with that time period. I have taken coins of Caesar and Brutus and have shown them to my students who remember that experience and appreciate what we are studying. Likewise, I have taken a Roman crucifixtion nail and shown it to members of my parish. While it is not the nail, it does make an impression that the people don't easily forget.
Now the first part is the conventional “pieces of the past in the hand” (emotion versus intellect) argument which suggests that a great help in the cutting down of personal artefact collecting might be if US (and not only) museums and educational institutions could develop more effective programmes of circulating handling collections of artifacts around schools like we had in England when I was a kid. Then teachers would not themselves have to buy artifacts for their show-and-tell which is then used to promote no-questions-asked portable antiquity collecting as an “educational” tool.

More disturbing however is the vision of a robed churchman somewhere out west each Easter solemnly taking from a case a cruddy black or brown corroded spike and holding it up reverently (or maybe triumphantly) and intoning in a voice full of dark significance “and this…is a real Roman crucifixtion (sic) nail, just like the one they used to crucify Our Lord, just imagine, come, touch it - feel how sharp it still is”. At this point, the old ladies cross themselves and the more fragile members of the congregation start to weep quietly with emotion.

But what is a “Roman crucifixion nail”? Leaving behind the debate on how frequently victims of this punishment were nailed to a cross or tied there, how can one tell what a Roman nail was used for or intended to be used for? The Romans had a well-developed iron production industry in most provinces. They made lots of nails. Their buildings were full of them. Their sites are littered with them. They made huge nails for joining big bits of wood (roof and floor joists, ships), middle sized ones for joining middle sized bits of wood (roof laths, floorboards, carts, doors and shutters) and little ones for small pieces of wood (caskets, hobnails). The Roman military was a large consumer of these nails, we have a pit full of them (about a million in fact) for example from the fort at Inchtuthill. Here’s some of them. A detachment off to do a morning’s crucifixion duty would drop off at the fort canteen to get their cheese and ham sandwiches and at the fort's blacksmith’s workshop for a bag of stout long carpentry nails.

So actually if the Reverend has been sold a “genu-whine real nail used by the Romans to crucify Christians – who knows “who” might have hung from it?” on eBay or by any other smooth-talking “don’t-ask-me-questions-I’ll-tell-no-lies” dealer in authentick artifacts, he’s been taken for a ride.

More to the point, in not determining the basis of the assertion that a particular spiky piece of rusty iron is both Roman and a “crucifixion” (and not roofing) nail - so basically the provenance again - and apparently representing it to his congregation as such, he is plainly abusing their trust and misleading them. (Note that interesting "the people" in the quote.)

Anyway what were claimed by their seller to be the "real nails" from the (a?) crucifixion were on offer on eBay last year.

L. Pitts and S. Frere, 1985, Inchtuthill: the Roman legionary fortress excavations 1952–65. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

I'd like to make it clear that Rev. Page was referring to a nail from A crucifixion, rather than THE Crucifixion. My point was that in the Roman world there was no such thing as a "crucifiction nail" (ie one made for that express purpose).

(I suspect the eBay offer was less a scam than a bad joke, one of the nails seems likely not even to be Roman in type)

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