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Bible Discovery: Researchers Find Small Relic with ‘Previously Unknown’ Depiction of Jesus

An archaeological team has reported “a sensational discovery” made during a dig in southern Austria.

While excavating a hilltop settlement in Irschen in 2022, the team found an ancient Christian reliquary hidden away in a marble shrine in “a previously unknown church,” the University of Innsbruck announced in a June 25 news release.

The marble container, which measured about 8 by 12 inches, contained a startling treasure: an ivory box, or “pyx,” “richly decorated with Christian motifs,” according to the release.

On one end of the pyx, a man is seen at the foot of a mountain, turning away his gaze as a hand from the sky places an object in his arms.

“This is the typical depiction of the handing over of the laws to Moses on Mount Sinai, the beginning of the covenant between God and man from the Old Testament,” archaeologist Gerald Grabherr said.

Another image shows a man in a chariot pulled by two horses, once again with a hand from the sky, this time reaching out to pull the figure into heaven.

“We assume that this is a depiction of the ascension of Christ, the fulfillment of the covenant with God,” Grabherr explained.

“The depiction of scenes from the Old Testament and their connection with scenes from the New Testament is typical of late antiquity and thus fits in with our pyx; however, the depiction of the Ascension of Christ with a so-called biga, a two-horse chariot, is very special and previously unknown,” he said.

The archaeologists have been working in the area since 2016 and have uncovered two Christian churches, several dwellings and a cistern, along with the personal belongings of former residents.

The shrine “was hidden under the altar in the side chapel area,” the news release said.

It’s extremely rare to make such a find in an old church, it said.

“We know of around 40 ivory boxes of this kind worldwide and, as far as I know, the last time one of these was found during excavations was around 100 years ago,” Grabherr said. “The few pyxes that exist are either preserved in cathedral treasures or exhibited in museums.”

Ulrike Töchterle, head of the restoration workshop at Innsbruck, said the 1,500-year-old ivory reliquary is being cared for at the university.

“Ivory, especially ivory stored on the ground like in the marble shrine, absorbs moisture from its surroundings and is very soft and easily damaged in this state,” she said. “In addition, uncontrolled drying out can lead to shrinkage and cracks and thus to damage that can no longer be repaired.”

It has taken two years to preserve the individual fragments of the pyx to the point where they can be analyzed by scientists.

“Due to the very high humidity of 90 percent in the marble shrine immediately after salvage, the risk of condensation and mold formation was very high,” Töchterle said, “and the contents could not be allowed to dry out too quickly.

“This meant we had to ensure a very careful and prolonged drying process.”

Unfortunately, the larger parts of the pyx are deformed so it is impossible to restore it to its original state. However, she said, the researchers are planning to do a 3-D reconstruction.

It’s something of a mystery as to why the ivory pyx was left where it was, Grabherr said.

A reliquary like this “is normally taken away as the ‘holiest’ part when a church is abandoned,” he said.

In this case, though, it appears it was left behind when the Christian residents fled the hilltop settlement around the year 610 A.D. When the Roman Empire ended, a Slavic army clashed with and defeated local armies and settlers.

That event marked “the end of the region’s affiliation with the ancient Mediterranean world and also with Christianity,” the release said. “The Slavic settlers [brought] their own world of gods with them.”

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