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Ivory fragments of the pyx arranged in the round on a white background.	Source: © Universität Innsbruck

Stunning 1,500-Year-Old Ivory Reliquary Discovered in Austria

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Since the summer of 2016, archaeologists from Innsbruck have been excavating a late antique hilltop settlement in the municipality of Irschen in southern Austria. Their efforts have unearthed remarkable findings, but none as sensational as the discovery two years ago: a Christian reliquary hidden in a previously unknown church. This discovery, made on August 4, 2022, by a team led by archaeologist Gerald Grabherr, included a richly decorated ancient ivory reliquary box.

Discovery of a Marble Shrine

A report on the finding by Innsbruck University describes how the archaeologists uncovered a marble shrine measuring approximately 20 by 30 centimeters (8 by 12 inches) under the altar in a side chapel at an early Christian church on the Burgbichl. Inside this shrine was a heavily fragmented ivory "box" or pyx, adorned with intricate Christian motifs.

Reliquaries like this one, often considered the holiest part of a church, are typically removed when a church is abandoned. However, this pyx was left behind, making it the first of its kind found in an archaeological context in Austria.

"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," explained Gerald Grabherr. Most existing pyxes are either preserved in cathedral treasures or exhibited in museums.

The individual fragments of the ivory pyx found in a marble shrine laid out as a panorama. (© Universität Innsbruck)

The individual fragments of the ivory pyx found in a marble shrine laid out as a panorama. (© Universität Innsbruck)

Hilltop Settlement in Irschen

Irschen, located in the Carinthian Drava Valley, was home to a late antique hilltop settlement that has been abandoned since around 610 AD. Archaeologists have documented several dwellings, two Christian churches, a cistern, and various personal belongings of the settlement's former inhabitants. This includes a star-shaped baptismal font and the recently discovered reliquary.

"Towards the end of the Roman Empire, times became more uncertain, especially in the peripheral provinces of the empire," explained Grabherr. As a result, inhabitants founded settlements on hilltops that were easier to defend.

The year 610 marks a significant turning point with the Battle of Aguntum, where Slavic armies defeated Baiuvari settlers. This victory marked the end of the region's affiliation with the ancient Mediterranean world and Christianity, as Slavic settlers brought their own gods. The settlement on Burgbichl has been abandoned since this time.

The Challenge of Conservation

Since its discovery, the 1,500-year-old ivory reliquary has been conserved at the University of Innsbruck. Ulrike Töchterle, head of the restoration workshop, explained the complexities involved in preserving such a fragile artifact. Ivory, especially when stored underground, absorbs moisture and becomes very soft, making it prone to damage. Uncontrolled drying can cause shrinkage and cracks.

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

Over the past two years, the team has carefully dried and conserved the ivory fragments to prepare them for scientific analysis. Although the pyx can no longer be restored to its original state due to deformation, researchers are working on a 3D reconstruction.

Initially, archaeologists thought the marble box might contain the remains of a saint. However, the fragmented state of the ivory pyx suggests it was already broken in late antiquity and buried in the altar.

“The pyx was presumably also seen as sacred and was treated as such because it was in contact with a relic. The archaeological and art-historical significance of the pyx cannot be denied,” emphasized Grabherr.

Left; Close-up: Moses receives the commandments from the hand of God. Right; Ascension of Christ on a biga. (© Universität Innsbruck)

Left; Close-up: Moses receives the commandments from the hand of God. Right; Ascension of Christ on a biga. (© Universität Innsbruck)

Depictions of Saints

The pyx features elaborate carvings of biblical scenes. One end depicts Moses receiving the laws from a hand emerging from the sky at the foot of a mountain. "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," said Grabherr.

The pyx also includes scenes from the New Testament, such as a man being lifted to heaven by a hand coming out of the clouds, which is believed to represent the Ascension of Christ. This unique depiction of the Ascension with a two-horse chariot, or biga, is previously unknown in Christian art.

Ongoing Analyses

Further investigations are underway to determine the origins of the marble, ivory, and metal components of the pyx. "We still need to determine the exact origin of the marble, and we also want to specify the origin of the ivory and the elephant using stable isotope analyses," explained Töchterle.

The hinges of the pyx, made of metal, and the glue used for the ivory are also being examined. Additionally, wooden parts found in the marble box, presumably part of the pyx's clasp, are being analyzed to determine their type, origin, and age.

Top image: Ivory fragments of the pyx arranged in the round on a white background.               Source: © Universität Innsbruck

By Gary Manners

 
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Gary

Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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