reliquary

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

The Atlantic locks in on that 'secret Catholic' subplot in the Jamestown reliquary mystery

It's rare to write about the same news topic twice in the same day, unless it's one of those hot-button topics that's driving people crazy on social media. That's a sobering thing to say, but there you have it.

However, I am truly fascinated with the depth of the questions being raised in early discussions of the silver box recently unearthed by the Jamestown Rediscovery team. This morning I raised some questions about a massive Washington Post piece on this topic and now, lo and behold, The Atlantic has posted a report on the same topic.

The Post piece pivoted on a question: Is the small silver box, containing human bones, found buried with colonial leader Gabriel Archer a reliquary or not? If it is a reliquary, in the ancient Christian sense of that word, then what saint or martyr were some of the colonialists venerating in this manner? 

Now editors at The Atlantic -- based on interviews with some of the same experts -- have published a lengthy piece that appears to be much more certain about several key facts. Check this out:

After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.

“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”

If that box is what Horn, in this new interview at least, seems certain that it is, then there are logical conclusions that can be drawn. Big ones.

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Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

Colonial Jamestown reliquary: Secret Catholics or Protestants 'venerating' bones of saints?

I love a good mystery hidden in the mists of history and it goes without saying that is doubly true of a mystery with a strong religion hook. So the Washington Post team had my full attention when it pushed out an online promotion for a fascinating feature story about some of the latest finds in the Jamestown Rediscovery project.

The key: Researchers found a small silver box containing what appear to be human bones, with what they believe is the letter "M" inscribed on the cover. Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- When his friends buried Capt. Gabriel Archer here about 1609, they dug his grave inside a church, lowered his coffin into the ground and placed a sealed silver box on the lid. ...
The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.
On Tuesday, more than 400 years after the mysterious box was buried, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian Institution announced that archaeologists have found it, as well as the graves of Archer and three other VIPs.
“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find. “It’s a huge deal.”

OK, but what was this small silver box? The story says it was probably an "object of veneration," but are we talking about some form of link to ancestors? The Post team, interviewing the experts, immediately locks into a crucial religious element of this mystery -- but misses some key questions and historical details.

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