Researchers try to answer mystery of saintly skull

The relic of St. Lucius. Image: National Museum of Denmark

The relic of St. Lucius. Image: National Museum of Denmark


The skull of St. Lucius was one of the most important relics of medieval Denmark, and was housed in Roskilde Cathedral. However, a team of scientists recently made a study of the skull, and although an examination shows it to belong to an elderly male, the result of the carbon 14 dating leaves no doubt: This is not St. Lucius, who died around AD254.

The legend of how the skull ended up in Denmark starts in the 1100s, when the people of Roskilde felt that their new cathedral should have a patron saint to whom they could appeal for help and protection. Two priests were sent as envoys to Rome to ask for an appropriate relic. The priests were led to Santa Cecilia, where they were to select a relic from the many found there, making the choice quite difficult. They caught sight of a skull shining brightly in the sun, and so the legend goes, it turned out to be that of St. Lucius (whose name means “light”). One of the priests claimed that St. Lucius had appeared in a dream declaring that he was destined to be the cathedral’s patron.

The skull was stored in Roskilde cathedral until the 1600s, but in the latter half of the century it was moved to the King’s Chamber of Arts and later the National Museum. In 1908, it was loaned to the Catholic Church and deposited in Copenhagen’s St. Ansgar’s Cathedral.

A mix up

However, a Norwegian researcher wondered if St. Lucius’ skull may have been mixed up with the skull of the Norwegian King, Sigurd Jorsalfarers . This skull had also been kept in the National Museum collection in the 1800s until it was gifted to Oslo University in 1867. Remarkably, both skulls bore the same museum number and so it was decided to conduct carbon-14 dating on the one thought to be that of St. Lucius.

The dating was carried out by Jan Heinemeier at the Department of Physics,University of Aarhus. The results showed that the skull came from the period AD340-431, and therefore proved that it did not belong to St. Lucius (died AD254) or Sigurd Jorsalfarer (died AD1130).

Archaeologist and geologist Karin Frei studied the content of the strontium isotope in the skull (strontium is absorbed into the body through the food you eat and the water you drink). Since strontium content in the rock varies from place to place, revealing the body’s levels of strontium reveals where an individual lived. The analysis shows that the man could have lived in Rome or its environs, but also he could be from Denmark, as the subsoil geology in the two areas have almost identical strontium content. However, it is unlikely that in the 1100s one would be able to obtain the skull of a man who had died in Denmark in 3rd-4th century. In Rome on the other hand, remains were stored in catacombs which provided an inexhaustible supply of bones, making relics readily available to sanctify churches in the vicinity and the rest of Christendom.

Solving the puzzle

According to the National Museum director Per Kristian Madsen, one way of solving at least part of the puzzle, is by opening the sarcophagus under the high altar of St. Cecilie Church. Both he and Jette Arneborg have visited the church to see the sarcophagus and hope that opening it will show if the skeleton there lacks a head. It may well prove that the skull from Roskilde once belonged to the skeleton in Rome, and the envoys got what they were led to/or wanted to believe was the head of St. Lucius.