The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 4: the Mystery of Moai Moving

One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is the question of how the large statues, called moai, were transported from the one quarry where they were made to their points of display upon the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, all around the island. This series has already explored some basics on: the physical nature of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the ahu and moai; and the carving of moai in the Rano Raruku quarry. We turn now to the moving of moai.

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Ahu and Moai of Easter Island (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

How Easter Islanders could effectively move hundreds of huge monolithic creations without modern conveyance is a long-debated topic. Lacking metals when Europeans arrived, the Rapanui (native Easter Islanders) were a Stone Age culture—that is not a denigration, but the reality of isolated life in that remote volcanic place.

Rano Raraku
Waiting on the Bus: completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, ever vainly awaiting transport to ahu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Data which made the original transport problem and proposed solutions more vexing: some 300 ahu are found all around the island, at distances up to nine miles from the Rana Raraku quarry. The largest moai transported to ahu were nearly 10 meters (almost 33 ft) tall and weighed around 75 metric (82 US) tons. The calculated “Statistically Average Moai” (dubbed SAM by Jo Ann Van Tilburg and her Easter Island Statue Project)1 is 4.05 m (13.2 ft) tall and weighs in at 12.5 metric (13.78 US) tons. Easter Island was devoid of trees of any significant size (for use as levers or rollers) when first seen by European explorers. There is no evidence the wheel was known or utilized by Rapanui in prehistory. They also did not have draft animals (nor any native land mammals at all).

Rano Raraku
More completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, with a transport road barely discernible in a meandering path roughly from the statues towards the left face of the Rano Kau crater in the far background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 To make it more interesting, the collected cultural memory (ethnography) is unanimous that the moai—imbued with the mana of the deceased ariki (chiefs) they represented—actually “walked” from the quarry to their ahu. All of this is fuel for the “Ancient Aliens” people and one does not have to look far online to find extraterrestrial origin theories for the moai. But such theories only develop and take root because of a widespread assumption: that ancient people lacked the capacity to solve problems we find daunting. Our inability, from a modern perspective, to conceive of working solutions for ancient problems encourages a disbelief which, coupled with cultural elitism, is a recipe for latent racism in which “primitive” becomes “savage” or even worse.

One part of the transport solution has been known since 1914, when Katherine Routledge recognized the traces of several tracks radiating from Rano Raraku quarry and deduced they were for moai. Indeed, excavation has confirmed they were built as roads with a standard surface design. Moai can be found lying about along those paths, apparently abandoned when they broke—or fell—during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
A fallen moai on the road (called Te Ara O Te Moai) leading SW from Rano Raraku quarry, where statue heads can be seen on the left slope of the crater in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Several “experimental archaeology” efforts have attempted to show how the moai were moved.2 Some of these have assumed the statues were transported horizontally—laying down—with both supine (face up) and prone (face down) positions posited. But abandoned statues lie (none were found standing) along the moai roads in both prone and supine positions. Further, many moai on roads are not broken, suggesting they were abandoned because they fell from a vertical position during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
Unbroken fallen prone moai on the Te Ara O Te Moai road (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most recent, and in my mind most convincing, reconstruction of moai transport on Easter Island proposes a system not requiring huge amounts of timber, manageable by a relatively small number of workers, and even satisfies the oral tradition of “walking” moai.3 Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo noted that moai have a low center of gravity, a significant forward lean (in examples at the quarry or in transport), appear to be slimmed down in the final finishing at their ahu, and have a D-shaped footprint with the straight side at the back. Based on this they proposed a system of rocking and stabilization by three teams pulling on ropes attached to the head or neck of the moai.

 

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Rocking to one side on the D-shaped base will cause the opposite side to pivot forward. The low center of gravity and guy-ropes held from behind keep the statute from falling over. When it rocks back past vertical in the opposite direction, the moai will pivot forward on the other side. In this way, the statue can be “walked” forward with coordinated rather than brute effort. See the results (preceded by a review of other theories) in this clever National Geographic video

Next in this series: embellishments of moai.

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1Jo Ann Van Tilburg, Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
2A review of attempts up to 1998 is conviniently summarized by PBS’ Nova series here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/past.html.
3With details summarized in Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).

 

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 3: the Making of a Moai

Following an initial physical introduction to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and an overview of the moai (statues) and ahu (ritual platforms), this is the third installment of the series on Easter Island. If you “skipped those classes,” you should do the remedial readings (part 1 and part 2) and I won’t have to redefine terms and catch you up! While I am waxing professorial, let me add that you should always read the footnotes.1

While the word moai is combined in the names of certain wooden statues—notably the emaciated male figures called moai kavakava—term used alone applies particularly to the monolithic statues of Easter Island. “Monolithic” means consisting of a single stone and in archaeological contexts usually implies significant size.

Ahu Huri A Urenga
Felicia’s favorite Moai at Ahu Huri A Urenga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Dating of megalithic monuments is fraught with difficulty, but it seems that the moai were carved, moved, and installed on ahu over a lengthy period sometime between 1100 and 1680 (a generation before the arrival of Europeans). Most researchers posit a somewhat shorter range within those extreme dates.2 While the most famous statues appear nearly identical in widely circulated pictures, there is a clear development of moai style and size over the period of their construction. Old moai reused as fill in later ahu construction or expansion demonstrate as much.

Tongariki: older Moai fragments from Ahu platform
Older and smaller moai fragments from Ahu Tongariki’s platform show a variety of styles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Volcanic rock—the only stone available on Easter—comes in many forms with varying qualities. A few statues are made from hard basalt (hard, fine-grained lava) or red scoria (dense, highly pitted lava) stone, but the vast majority of moai (and all that clearly stood on ahu) were carved from tuff. Tuff is compacted and consolodated volcanic ash. It is usually easily carved but the surface hardens with exposure to air. An excellent source of pinkish-gray tuff is found in and around the rim of the crater called Rano Raraku. The quarry there is the very near exclusive source of moai associated with ahu on Easter Island, and nearly half of known and cataloged moai are still found at Rano Raraku. This can be seen by the concentration of red moai symbols in my map:3

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Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Rano Raraku is the “place with all the heads” and the source of most recognizable photos of moai. This is because hundreds of statues were created there and still awaited transport for placement on ahu when that whole process ceased (a “mystery” to be covered in a subsequent post). Moai left in upright positions in pits were gradually buried by erosion to various heights, most often with only the head exposed. The effect today is that of an abandoned sales lot, like some bizarre version of those concrete statue places found outside cities in seemingly every part of the world today—and oddly similar to a statue “factory” about which I have posted in Turkey.

Rano Raraku
A typical view of partly-buried standing moai at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But Rano Raraku features moai in every stage of completion, from just laid out, to shaped but not separated from the rock, to standing and awaiting final details, and ready for transport. Statues were carved in a horizontal position and mostly completed while still attached to the natural rock by a backbone ridge.

Rano Raraku
Roughed out but unfinished moai still attached to natural rock at Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The connecting ridge was broken away and the freed moai slid downhill into a pit wherein it would stand vertical for finishing and details. Unfinished and finished examples stand adjacent in this pic:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the more-distant one at center right completed, but the one in the foreground with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

And also in this view of the same statues from the other side:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the near one completed; the one in the left background with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most impressive unfinished moai is also the largest ever attempted, at 21 meters (69 ft) tall, over twice the height of the tallest one ever erected on an ahu. It would have weighed about 250 metric tons (275 US tons) if completed! 

 

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That this giant could be successfully moved for display is reasonably doubted. Still, the largest moai ever successfully installed on an ahu stood 10 meters (about 32 ft) and weighed 74 metric tons (about 82 US tons)! As this was no small feat, transport of these these behemoths is another “mystery” of Easter Island, to which we’ll turn in the next post.

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1Yes, you should. Your reward for looking at the footnotes: moai jokes.
2Scholars tend to argue about such things; for an overview, see Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011), 9-18 (and throughout the book).
3An excellent online database/map, which also shows the incredible concentration of moai at Rano Raraku is provided by B. Shepardson, “Moai database–Rapa Nui,” 2007; http://www.terevaka.net/moai.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu

Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.

The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.

Rano Raraku
Moai buried to different extents on the outer slope of Rano Raraku quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1 Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.

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Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . .  << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, with its seven restored moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, from the side, showing the wing extensions and platform construction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?

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[Updated 2 July 2018: better map!]


1Moai and ahu are both singular and plural.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World

Since my last post,* I was able to take my wife on a trip that we have both desired to make for most of our lives: a trek to Easter Island. As I have just completed teaching a brief series of classes on the subject for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi (more affectionately: OLLI), I’ll offer a few summary posts here.

Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.

Rano Raraku
A couple of the famous heads at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo ©Daniel C Browning Jr)

There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .

Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1

While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).

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Elevations and major physical features of Easter Island, with inset showing isolated location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.

Poike from SE coast
The SE coast of Easter Island with Poike in the distance (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).

About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3

The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4

But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.

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A bad thing happened . . . typical fallen moai at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Continue to Part 2: Click Here!

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*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
3Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 91.
4See, for example, Sebastian Englert, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Scribners, 1970), 30-31.

The Places and Faces of St. Nicholas: St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place? Part 3 (Pic of the Day 2017-12-26)

“Santa is dead; I have been to all three of his tombs!” That tongue-in-cheek potential presentation title is the idea of beloved former student, now-former colleague, and fine scholar, J Mark Nicovich. The conundrum of three tombs (plus many other claimed relics) arises from the traditions that St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey), was buried in that city but his remains were stolen on two different occasions and taken (ahem, . . . “translated”) to Bari in southern Italy in 1087 and Venice, in northern Italy in 1101. Thus, there are Churches of St. Nicholas in all three locations, each claiming to enshrine the resting place for the inspiration and namesake of Santa Claus. See Part 1 of this Trilogy on “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” here (and Part 2 here).

So, which church/city possesses the real relics of St. Nicholas? As it happens, recent months have seen some significant developments in this question.

In early October of 2017 Cemil Karabayram, Director of Surveying and Monuments for the region in which Myra/Demre is located (Antalya), claimed in an interview that CT and radar scans had revealed an intact “temple” beneath the St. Nicholas Church. The exact location is not revealed by the article, but he indicated that the find is currently inaccessible “because experts have to first work on the mosaics.”1

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Interior of St. Nicholas Church, from the choir apse (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Karabayram speculated, “maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas.” How can this be, given the two accounts of the “translation” of the Saint’s relics to Bari and Venice? “Traders in Bari took the bones. But it is said that these bones did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest,” he said, adding. “Professor Yıldız Ötüken . . . says that St Nicholas is kept in a special section.” “We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage. . . . If we get the results, Antalya’s tourism will gain big momentum.”2

Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Choir apse of St. Nicholas Church, Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The claim that Nicholas’ body has remained in Myra/Demre is significant; and the note that tourism would be boosted if it is found is telling. Are city status and tourist revenues a motivation? Bari and Venice surely took note . . .

Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Dome fresco in St Nicholas Church of Myra/Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Decorated apse in St Nicholas Church, Myra/Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

On 6 December (significantly, the date of St. Nicholas’ death and Feast Day), articles announced that relics of St. Nicholas subjected to Carbon 14 analysis by the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre dated to the fourth century; i.e., consistent with the AD 343 death of the historical bishop. Careful sifting of the published info reveals that the single bone tested is owned by an American priest in Morton Grove Illinois, who says he obtained the relic from Lyon in France.3 By inference, the Oxford University news release suggests that the bones in Bari and Venice therefore could date to the fourth century as well. There is no solid connection between the American relic and those in the Italian churches. But the Bari relics of St. Nicholas are missing part of the pelvis, of which the tested bone apparently comes.

During restorations at Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola in the early 1950s, the tomb of St. Nicholas was opened for the first time since it was sealed by Pope Urban II in 1089. The bones were examined by Luigi Martino, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bari, who found the skeleton was incomplete. A complete skull, however, allowed reconstruction of the ancient face—that of Nicholas, if the bones are authentic.4 In 1992, Martino was asked to examine the relics in Venice. The latter were all broken into smaller pieces, but he concluded that the Venice fragments were complementary to the bones in Bari and they are from the skeleton of the same man. A narrative that the Bari sailors in 1087 hurriedly absconded with the skeleton and left pieces behind to be found in 1099 by the Venetian raiders is thus possible.5  So, in a spirit of ecumenical peace, the Bari and Venice claims can coexist and they can share the reconstructed image of the Saint adored in both places. The logical—but unlikely—next step is to use DNA analysis to connect the bones of Bari and Venice, and either radiocarbon date them or include the Illinois fragment in the DNA analysis. This, however, would spoil the remaining mystery.

Meanwhile, back at Demre/Myra, we await further archaeological explorations in the Church of St. Nicholas. As for the image of St. Nicholas there, there is already some controversy, as the city has displayed four different images of the Saint in the last 35 years.6 From 1981 to 2000, the only public image was a statue of a Father Christmas-like figure with a bag over his shoulder and children huddled around him, as if seeking protection. It still stands in the courtyard in front of St. Nicholas Church. In my mind, this is the most appropriate one, given the controversy that followed (it might be noted that moving/replacing statues is not a new thing):

Myra:
“Father Christmas” statue near St. Nicholas Church in Demre/Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

In 2000, a Russian sculptor and the mayor of Moscow presented Demre with a bronze statue of St. Nicholas in Orthodox style, which was placed atop a large globe on a pedestal in the town square, a block or so in front of the church.

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The bronze “Orthodox St. Nicholas” statue, now in a courtyard outside the entrance to St. Nicholas Church (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

In 2005, however, the Orthodox Christian St. Nicholas was replaced by the town council with a red-suited Santa Claus statue made of Bakelite (as I never saw the Santa statue in place, you can view a pic here). Demre’s mayor, explained “this is the one everyone knows;” plus, it was also less offensive to the city’s Muslim population.7 Nevertheless, complains were made, primarily by Russian interests, as St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia. Finally (for now), and perhaps in response to protests, a compromised was reached on Christmas Day 2008, when the current statue atop the pedestal was unveiled:

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The “Turkish Santa” now in the town square at Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

It is a fiberglass “Turkish Santa” with a heroic stance and victorious mien, holding a small child on his shoulder and another by the hand, each raising a wrapped gift. Controversy aside; I like it.

Actually, I like them all. The changing images (and names) of St. Nicholas are a commentary on social roles of hero figures, cultural appropriation, tribalism . . . and really on human nature. Most Americans of recent generations experienced an evolution (or revolution) in their own concepts of Santa Claus while maturing, not so unlike the changes of statues in Demre. And as for the question of the travels (or not) of Nicholas’ bones; I am taken back to the catalyst for this series of posts: the NORAD tracking of Santa on Christmas Eve, mentioned in Part 1. While the notion that government technology could track his sleigh is exciting, and the website is visually impressive (and educational), I cant help feeling that it robs something from that childhood wonder at the mysterious how and unknown when of Santa’s anticipated arrival. Then I realized the technology and presentation didn’t really answer anything—there is always more mystery and wonder. So, that is why I rather suspect (and perhaps secretly hope) that the true fate of Nicholas’ remains will remain similarly unknown. Life is just more interesting that way.

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Notes

1 Salim Uzun, “Body of St Nicholas buried in Demre, claim officials,” Hürriyet Daily News, 4 October 2017. 
2 ibid; from what I can determine, all other news items giving this information cite/depend on this original English article.
3 “Could Ancient Bones Suggest Santa was Real?” http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-12-05-could-ancient-bones-suggest-santa-was-real, 5 December 2017. Note also the unwarranted sensationalism of the news release title; and from Oxford! Really?
4 See the concise and excellent overview at “Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics, St. Nicholas Centerhttp://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/anatomical-examination/; including reconstructions of the face!
5Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?,” St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/relics-in-the-lido-of-venice/.
6 Again, the best summary of this is found at the St. Nicholas Center site: “Four Faces of Nicholas—Who is He in His Hometown?,” St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/demre-statues/.
7 Karl Vick, “Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa: Local Hero’s Statue Moved From Square,” Washington Post, 24 March 2005, p. A01.

The city of Myra in Asia Minor: St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place? Part 2 (Pic of the Day 2017-12-25)

This is a brief intermediate follow-up to “Part 1 of St. Nick’s Not-So-Final-Resting-Place,” before we get to the conclusion in Part 3 (that will make it a trilogy!). Here I will focus on the city where St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) was bishop and what can be seen there.

Ancient Myra was a typical Greco-Roman city of some regional importance. About 5 km away lie the ruins of Myra’s Mediterranean harbor town, Andriake. An ancient synagogue, identified by a menorah decoration and inscription, is of special interest.

Adriake: Synagogue
The synagogue at Andriake, the port for Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Adriake: Synagogue
Menorah relief decoration (reproduction, I assume; original in the adjacent museum, not yet open at the time of the photo in 2015) in the Andriake synagogue (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The site of Andriake, recently opened to the public, also includes fine harbor buildings, restored monuments, a huge cistern, and ancient boat replicas. Given his reputation among sailors, Nicholas no doubt was familiar with Andriake.

Myra is located in Lycia, where the most visually unique ancient remains are tombs, with several types carved in the ubiquitous rock cliffs of the region. Not far from the Church of Nicholas, a nice array of such tombs can be seen above the ancient theater of the city.

Myra: western tombs
Myra: western tombs above the theater (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The theater with its backdrop of tombs is a major stop for the buses full of cruise-ship borne tourists:

Myra: Theater
Myra: Theater (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Russian tourists I mentioned in Part 1, free from the religious atmosphere of the Church St. Nicholas, now typically indulge in over-the-top photo ops at the theater (NOTE: I did not obtain permission from any of these people to take/use their images, but given the very public nature of their exhibitionism, I assume I am okay—however, I have not included the more embarrassing or salacious pics I got that day in 2011):

Myra: western tombs
Stylish gesturing for the camera at the western tombs of Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Myra: Theater
Seductive picture taking in the theater of ancient Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Myra: Theater
Sexy picture taking in the theater of ancient Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Myra: Theater
Shock by the ruins themselves (I feel the same way . . .  photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

For the visitor that does not like crowds or the “You Don’t Get This On the Bus Tour” folks, I suggest a visit to the other side of the hill, where only working agricultural fields lie below the Northern Tombs of Myra:

Myra: Northern tombs
The Northern Tombs of ancient Myra, isolated from the crowds (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Meanwhile, back at the Church of St. Nicholas, we have not answered the questions posed in Part 1.1 We will address these and the question of Nicholas’ appearance in Part 3 (perhaps later today?) . . .

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Notes

1 I.e.: Who has the real St. Nicholas? Bari or Venice? Or, could his remains remain in Myra (Demre)?

St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place? Part 1 (Pic of the Day 2017-12-24)

As I write this, it is Christmas Eve, and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is already performing its annual national defense duty: (that of tracking Santa on his rounds). It occurred to me that we can attempt to track Santa’s movements in antiquity—or at least those of his remains . . . .

As is well known (and which will not be detailed here), Santa Claus is a derivative from Saint Nicholas, a quite real early Christian bishop from the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor (now the city Demre, Turkey). After a ministry that spanned the Peace of the Church, defending children, caring for the people in Myra during famine, protecting sailors, saving the falsely accused, and a purported action role at the Council of Nicea in 325, Nicholas died on December 6 (now his feast day), AD 343.1  He was buried in Myra where a church was built over his tomb after his remains were said to produce a healing liquid called manna. The church itself is difficult to appreciate as it is somewhat lower than the present ground level of that part of Demre, and the entrance is covered with scaffolding as part of a long-ongoing excavation and restoration project.

Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Myra: Church of St Nicholas in 2011 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are several graves in the church, but one is specially remembered as the tomb of Nicholas and greatly revered by Eastern Orthodox, especially Russians. This post and site cannot get a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” tag because when a cruise ship packed with Russian vacationers arrives, every bus hauls them to Demre, where they invade the church in varying states of inappropriate dress. Such was the case on my first attempt to inspect the tomb in 2011. Any hope of a decent pic of the grave was lost and even approaching it nearly futile. A modest glass barrier could not protect the top of the sarcophagus from the hands of the faithful:

Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Tomb of St. Nicholas in 2011; note that the woman has reached between the glass and niche wall to caress the sarcophagus lid, as did almost everyone I saw (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

On a subsequent visit in 2014, there was no cruise ship and thus no hordes of Russians having a pious moment amidst their hedonistic vacation. So, I could get a decent pic, I thought. But I noticed with amusement that the modest protective glass was replaced by a significantly stouter defensive shield:

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Tomb of St. Nicholas in 2014 with more protective glass (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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Myra: Church of St Nicholas, Tomb from the opposite angle (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, why is the sarcophagus clearly broken? And why is the title of this blog post: “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” And what does this have to do with tracking Santa’s (remains) movements?

As it happens, St. Nicholas’ remains are revered in churches named for him in Bari and Venice, both in Italy, and in several other places around Christendom. How did this come to be? The short version is that after Myra fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1071, the maritime powers Bari and Venice each conspired to relocate the valuable relics of the Saint to their cities. Ships from Bari arrived first in 1087 and, quite against the will of the people and church at Myra, “translated” the bones of Nicholas to their city where they are venerated in a basilica to this day. In 1099, en route to Palestine on the First Crusade, ships from Venice stopped in Myra as well. They broke through the floor of the church and found an urn labelled to contain Nicholas’ remains. They took these and others with them and back to Venice in 1101, where they are revered in a basilica to this day.2

So, who has the real St. Nicholas? Bari or Venice? Or, could his remains remain in Myra? Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 . . .

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Notes

1 For interesting and informative info on Nicholas, his history, and transformation into Santa Claus, see the St. Nicholas Center.

2 The most accessible sources are found at the St. Nicholas Center.