Friday, June 1, 2012

26 May 2011 – Skullduggery and evidence


This coming Sunday, at Annesbrook House in Duleek, Ireland, an auctioneer will be offering a peculiar object for sale: the preserved head of Saint Vitalis of Assisi.  The marinated skull, contained in an elegant display case, was found among the contents of a country house in Louth, and may have been acquired by a member of the house’s family during a trip abroad.  According to the article in the Meath Chronicle, the head and case appear to have spent a good deal of time in a garden shed, a consequence of the unwillingness of the lady of the household to share quarters with so grisly an object, however holy it might be.(Note A)  Another possible explanation for the head’s exile might have been that she felt no particular need for its former owner’s intervention.  Saint Vitalis, you see, is accounted the patron saint of those who suffer from afflictions and diseases affecting the bladder and genitals, a portfolio deriving from his personal history, which saw him give up an early life spent in debauchery, immorality and licentiousness in exchange for the Benedictine mantle and a life of contemplation and self-abnegation at the monastery of Santa Maria di Viole. 

The timing of the auction is probably not an accident; Vitalis’ feast day is May 31st.  Tuesday next will be the 641st anniversary of his death in 1370.

Figure 1 - The preserved head of St. Vitalis of Assisi

All of this, while interesting from an historical perspective, is not what caught my attention about the impending auction.  While the Meath Chronicle scrupulously declines to cast doubt upon the provenance of the proffered pickled cranium, others among the media are not so delicate.  A Canoe News article, for example, ends with a comment by the auctioneer to the effect that he “couldn’t confirm it’s actually the head of St. Vitalis.”(Note B)  This isn’t an uncommon problem where religious artifacts are concerned; John Calvin (in his 1543 Treatise on Relics) famously observed that if all of the claimed pieces of the True Cross were collected together, they would fill a ship; while the Shroud of Turin continues to excite comment and speculation, even though radiocarbon dating places it in the 13th-14th Century, matching the first time it appears in Church history.  Wood and linen cloth, though, while excellent subjects for forensic analysis, can be difficult to tie to a specific individual or event; and given how and where the skull was found, it can safely be assumed that there is no evidence of chain of custody linking it back to someone’s shoulders.  Saint Vitalis’ relics have been moved (or “translated”, in ecclesiastical vernacular) several times, most notably in 1586, when Bishop Brugnatelli had them taken from the monastery where Vitalis expired to a chapel at San Ruffino; and in 2001, when they were “translated” back to their original place of honour at Viole.  The Catholic Church are inveterate record-keepers, and church records probably note which relics specifically were handled and transferred on each occasion, although solid accounts are far more likely in the recent move than in the one that took place in the 16th Century.

With a skull, particularly one of allegedly more recent origin than either the Shroud or the various fragments of the Cross, modern forensic techniques offer a much wider array of options for determining authenticity.  Radiocarbon dating, for example, is fairly accurate on carbon-bearing materials up to about 60,000 years in age.  For samples less than 10,000 years old, accuracy of modern dating techniques approaches +/- 40 years.  So first, it should be possible to determine whether the head is from the correct era (the same technique, incidentally, could be performed on the wood of the case, although re-casing can’t be ruled out).  The size, shape and condition of the skull and teeth should indicate gender and approximate age at time of death, and might offer evidence about such diverse topics as medical treatments undergone by the owner, dental condition, diet, and degenerative bone diseases.  Blood testing and DNA analysis should be able to offer enormous amounts of evidence, possibly even including evidence of past afflictions (particularly afflictions of a venereal origin, which would support the thesis about Vitalis’ early life), and where its former owner stood, genetically speaking, with respect to contemporary Italian families.

What’s important to note about all of these possibilities, of course, is that the gathering of evidence is almost exclusively aimed not at substantiating but rather at falsifying a stated theory, i.e., the theory that the head going up for sale on Sunday is actually that of an Italian monk who died in 1370.  This is the nature of empirical scientific inquiry; positive results can only temporarily substantiate a theory, while any negative result can definitively falsify it.(Note C)  Einstein argued much the same point, stating that “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; [while] a single experiment can prove me wrong.”  Remember, we only have a theory about how, for example, gravity works; the graviton is posited as a particle, but it has yet to be observed in nature.  All we have to rely on is secondary evidence - for example, the fact that the Earth continues to rotate about the Sun without suddenly spinning off into space, or the fact that every time you drop a hammer, it falls to the ground.  All it would take to force physicists to go back to the drawing board is a single recorded and verified instance of a hammer falling up.

In science, hypothesization about the cause of a phenomenon follows observation of the phenomenon itself, and is followed in turn by experimentation.  With respect to Saint Vitalis, the observation is that this is an old head in a jar, and the hypothesis - based on the label on the jar - is that the head once belonged to a Benedictine monk who reportedly cured genital illnesses, and who shuffled off the mortal coil in 1370.  There is no evidence to validate the hypothesis; and absent notarized chain-of-custody documents, all of the evidence that we might be able to come up with based on forensic analyses of the mortal remains would necessarily be negative.  Nothing allegedly positive could be conclusive (although I suppose a double-bind experiment involving urinary tract infection sufferers split into a control group, a group spending a few hours in company with Saint Vitalis, and a third group drinking a few litres of cranberry juice might offer some empirical data); but negative results can definitively exclude certain possibilities.  Radiocarbon dating, for example, if it showed that the skull was hundreds of years older (or younger) than the stated age of 641 years, would conclusively falsify the theory; but even if it showed that the skull was 641 +/-40 years old at time of death, that still wouldn’t be positive proof of its provenance.  It might be a woman’s skull; or DNA testing might reveal it to be from, for example, a definitively African or East Asian or Northern European line of descent.  In short, as Popper argued, positive results can only provide temporary support for a theory, while negative results can put a theory permanently to rest.(Note D)  Such is the nature of empirical inquiry.

According to the articles cited below, there are no plans to conduct forensic testing on the skull with a view to determining its authenticity.  However, given that it’s only expected to sell for somewhere between 800 and 1200 Euros, it wouldn’t be beyond the means of even a small university biology department to acquire the thing and give it the full treatment.  I suspect that we might get some secondary evidence of its authenticity this weekend anyway.  I don’t know whether the Vatican has a policy of reacquiring relics of saints that show up in the market (because that could definitely get expensive), but at such a low price it would be a shame to let the head get away if there were some possibility that it were genuine.  In this context, it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, buys it. 

I for one won’t be bidding; much as I’m a history buff, I think I fall into the same category as the former lady of the house who relegated Saint V to the garden shed.   That is one creepy-looking dead guy, and I don’t think I’d want him staring at me from my mantle-piece.  Besides, 800 Euros will buy you a lot of penicillin.




A) [].

B) [].

C) Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Logik der Forschung; trans. by author with assistance of Dr. Julius Freed and Lan Freed)(New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), 10.

D) That sort of thing happened just this week, incidentally.  The theory that the Marinoan Ice Age ended 600,000,000 years ago because of methane bubbling up from under the Earth (and subsequently being eaten by microbes, producing carbon dioxide that subsequently caused global warming) took a stake through the heart from a new Caltech study which shows that the rocks that the theory was based on were actually formed millions of years after the ice age ended, and at temperatures so high that no living organism could have survived in them. “Whatever the source of carbon was”, one of the scientists remarked, “it wasn’t related to the end of the ice age.”  [].  This is worth noting because the “bubbling methane” theory (most recently, it’s methane from under the allegedly melting Artic permafrost) keeps coming back as one of the “tipping point” scenarios routinely offered by climate alarmists as a potential instigator of “sudden climate change”.  This bugbear, too, has now been relegated to the ash heap of incorrect theories, courtesy empirical evidence falsifying the hypothesis.