Jerry Vardaman’s “microletters” on Roman coins

This is an odd one, and it’s something that seems to have passed by the notice of most “alternative” archaeologists. It concerns some claims made by a genuine academic archaeologist that relate to coinage of the late first century BCE and early first century CE, which he believed demonstrated that the chronology of the career of Jesus of Nazareth have been dated wrongly. These matters of chronology are not the focus of interest here (indeed, they are abstruse and relate more to biblical exegesis and religious history than to archaeology as such): it is the claim that coins minted in the eastern (predominantly Greek speaking) part of the Roman Empire contain what are claimed to be “microletters”. These are microscopic letters that are alleged to have been created on the coin dies by the moneyers who struck them. It is an unusual claim, but coming from an academic archaeologist, ought to be examined carefully. After all, academics never make mistakes, do they?

Jerry Vardaman

Dr Ephraim Jeremiah (Jerry) Vardaman (1927-2000) Source

The discoverer of the “microletters” was Ephraim Jeremiah (‘Jerry’) Vardaman (1927-2000), a lecturer in archaeology and religion at Mississippi State University in Starkville (Mississippi, USA), where he was the founder and director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology from 1973 to 1981, and from which he retired in 1992. He had previously been a Baptist Bible chair teacher at Tarleton State College (now University), an adjunct teacher of Old Testament at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1958 and assistant professor and associate professor of New Testament archaeology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, USA) from 1958 to 1972. He also taught at the Hong Kong Baptist Seminary, perhaps after his retirement from Mississippi State University; he was certainly leading seminars there in 1998. His bachelor’s degree was awarded by Southwestern Seminary and he obtained two doctorates, one from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 (on Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel) and the other from Baylor University in 1974 (on The Inscriptions of King Herod I). He undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford (UK) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He excavated extensively in the Middle East, at the sites of Bethel, Shechem, Ramat Rachel, Caesarea, Ashdod, Macherus and Elusa. All in all, this is an impressive curriculum vitae and one that means we should take Dr Vardaman’s ideas very seriously.

Jerry Vardaman’s claims

Although Jerry Vardaman never published any peer-reviewed papers on his discovery, his paper “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” in Chronos, Kairos, Christos I (Eisenbrauns, 1989) introduced the concept of microletters:

These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth… On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters.


An example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 1

Apart from this chapter in a relatively obscure publication on biblical chronology, there are no formally published reports of the discovery. A series of three lectures, delivered to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998 has been in circulation for some time; they can be downloaded here as poor quality pdfs 1, 2 and 3. That is the total of Vardaman’s output on the subject of microletters, although it should be noted that he also claimed to identify them on stone-cut inscriptions.

The academic response was almost non-existent. There were no (reported) attempts by others to validate Vardaman’s alleged discovery, no critiques of his technique and, most worryingly, no public statement on the matter by Nikos Kokkinos, alleged to have been the co-discoverer of microletters. Nikos Kokkinos is well known as an expert on ancient coinage and on the coinage of the Herodian dynasty in particular, but he seems never to have published anything claiming to have detected microletters on the objects he studies. He is someone who is unafraid of courting controversy (he was one of the co-authors of Centuries of Darkness, a radical attempt to revise the chronology of the ancient Near East and Aegean that has not met with the approval of the majority of scholars), so this failure to mention them is very surprising. The only response seems to have been a review, “Theory of Secret Inscriptions on Coins is Disputed”, by the prominent numismatist David Hendin in The Celator (Volume 5 no 3 (March 1991), 28-32). The magazine published a rebuttal to Hendin’s criticisms by Jerry Vardaman, which added no new evidence to his published work.

Critique of the “microletters”

Another example of microletters on a coin

Another example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 2 (reverse)

The lack of acknowledgement by the wider academic community is not necessarily a result of a general unwillingness to look at Jerry Vardaman’s ideas, nor is it the closing of ranks against novel hypotheses (a claim that many “alternative” archaeologists make to explain why mainstream archaeologists tend to ignore their works). It is a direct result of Vardaman’s failure to publish his results adequately by submitting them to peer-reviewed publications. It is also because of the audience to which he pitched his ideas: instead of presenting them to numismatists and epigraphers, who would be those best placed to evaluate them, he concentrated on the religious studies audience, particularly those of a biblical literalist bent. In some ways, this is not surprising (Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister), but it is worrying.

A third example of microletters

A third example of microletters, after Vardaman’s “Jesus’ Life, A New Chronology” Figure 3

One possibility for the lack of wider discussion of “microletters” is that other archaeologists simply did not believe that they exist. There are enormous problems with them, of course. Although Vardaman does not supply scales to his drawings of the coins, the letters he claims to have detected are tiny, less than half a millimetre in height. They could only have been added to the coin dies using a very fine, hard-tipped scriber of some kind, although he produced no archaeological evidence for this type of tool. We must also ask ourselves why an ancient coin die-maker would have added words and phrases that would have been invisible to the coin users. And why did he use a mixture of Greek and Latin on coins that have regular inscriptions only in Greek? How have letters so small survived the day-to-day wear to which all coins are subject so that Vardaman could discover them? How are they visible beneath the patina that develops on all archaeologically recovered coins? If corrosion products have been removed or stabilised, how have the microletters survived the cleaning process? These are insurmountable difficulties and Vardaman was never questioned about them.

Microletters reading REX JESVS

Microletters reading REX JESVS

There is a more serious problem, though. As well as the promiscuous mixing of Greek and Latin words in the microletter inscriptions, there is at least one instance published by Vardaman of the letter J, used in the name Jesus. This letter simply did not exist in either the Greek or Latin alphabets of the time of Jesus: it was invented by the Italian humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550) to represent a sound for which the existing Latin alphabet of Early Modern period had no character. It was based on the final -i in Roman numerals in medieval manuscript traditions, where ii, iii, vii and viii were conventionally written ij, iij, vij, viij, a purely decorative feature. It can not have been “microinscribed” on a coin of the first century CE.

Explaining non-existent “microletters”

So what are we to make of Vardaman’s hypothesis? Well, it’s bunk, pure and simple. It is Bad Archaeology of a very obvious kind: Jerry Vardaman was seeing things that just don’t exist. We have to ask ourselves why he did so. He does not seem to have set out to hoax people and seems genuinely to have believed in the existence of microletters. The well known atheist historian Richard Carrier has suggested that in later life, Vardaman was suffering from a “chronic mental illness”. This may be going too far. Jerry Vardaman was certainly deluded about the existence of his microletters and continued to assert that he was correct, without bringing forward any evidence, until the end of his life. I suspect that his religious convictions had a part to play in his insistence on their reality.

As a Baptist of decidedly literalist leanings, Jerry Vardaman regarded scripture as infallible; the well known problem of the impossible date for the birth of Jesus given in the Gospel of Luke, who appears to date it to 6 CE during the governorship of Quirinus in Syria, has led to a variety of ingenious explanations. Vardaman was of the view that there were two governors of Syria named Quirinus: the one mentioned by Josephus and well known to history and an earlier, more shadowy figure, who was governor in 12 BCE, the date Vardaman preferred for the birth of Jesus. His microletters formed a major element in his identification of the supposedly early Quirinius (as did microletters on stone inscriptions), who is otherwise unknown. Vardaman’s desperation to confirm the account of Luke in the face of the enormous difficulty posed by the implied date of the census that would have brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem led him into serious errors of judgement: he literally saw what he wanted.


Channel 4’s dreary not-so-new evidence about the Turin Shroud

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The Turin Shroud

The face on the Turin Shroud: a contemporary icon

Channel 4 last night (30 December 2009) showed a documentary claiming to present “new evidence” that the Turin Shroud is not a medieval fake. They wheeled out members of the 1970s STURP team, the 2005 paper published in Thermochimica Acta claiming that the radiocarbon dates were contaminated by cotton of sixteenth-century date and ended up presenting nothing that’s not already known.

It was in the documentary’s omissions that the greatest faults lay. The voice-over stated that the image is not painted, giving the impression that nobody could explain the colouring other than that it’s a “degradation of the cellulose” in the linen fibres. That’s not quite correct. What is seen on the shroud is a chemical darkening of a starch and polysaccharide coating on some of the fibres: it’s not the fibres themselves, but something applied to them after manufacture. In other words, pigment. And if that’s not paint, I really don’t know what is. One of the members of the STURP team, Walter McCrone, concluded during the study that the image was painted using red ochre and vermillion pigments. The programme didn’t mention him or his conclusions!

The documentary also stated that the blood stains seen on the shroud must be real blood, as they contain degradation products from haemoglobin. Even if this be accepted – and there is still the problem that these stains are red, not brown like real dried blood – it does not mean that the blood derives from a corpse wrapped in the shroud. Given that the image was introduced as a coating on the fibres, it is equally likely that the “blood” was introduced in the same way. Why couldn’t a medieval forger have painted on blood using, say, cow’s blood, which would have been readily available (even though McCrone thought it to be vermillion)?

The scientists at the radiocarbon laboratories noted contamination of the samples with cotton, while McCrone had already drawn attention to the mixture of cotton and linen. This means that they were able to deal with it. They recognised the cotton and removed it, dating the linen fibres, which is what they were asked to do. The preparation of samples for dating involves rigorous cleaning to remove potential contaminants, such as these stray cotton fibres. There is no reason to suspect that the three laboratories undertaking the dating did not do their basic cleaning, especially as they had spotted the contaminants.

The programme brought up the old claim that the image on the shroud somehow encodes three-dimensional data and, using the same computer program used to create a three-dimensional image of the face on the shroud, showed that it does not work with photographs. How dishonest! We’re not dealing with a photograph on the shroud but with a painted image. The comparison should have been with a painting. Talk about prejudged conclusions! Besides, if we’re dealing with an image produced by draping a cloth over a corpse, it ought to be far more three-dimensional than we see: where are the sides of the body that the cloth would have touched? The fact that they aren’t there is good evidence that the image is painted.

A first-century CE burial in Jerusalem containing scraps of a burial shroud

A first-century CE burial in Jerusalem containing scraps of a burial shroud

A further significant omission was the discovery of a genuinely first-century Jewish burial cloth in Jerusalem, announced in November 2009. It consists of a patchwork of cloths with a separate piece for the head, all made in a plain two-way weave, quite unlike the Turin Shroud. Going back to the Gospels – our only sources of information about the burial of Jesus – we find that they mention not a single cloth but “strips of linen” (Luke XXIV.12 and John XX.5, both using the Greek word ὀθόνια, meaning ‘small pieces or strips of linen’). Supporters of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud are careful not to quote these passages, which show that the evangelists did not think of the body of Jesus as ever having been wrapped in a single linen cloth.

Finally, there was no mention of the contemporary Bishop of Lirey’s enquiries into the origins of the shroud when it was fist exhibited c 1357. He identified the artist responsible for its creation and there the matter ought to have rested. The technique of tempera painting onto cloth is fourteenth century, the first record of the shroud is fourteenth century and the radiocarbon dates show that it was manufactured in the fourteenth century. There really isn’t any room for doubt!

Santa Claus, come home!

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Saint Nicholas, depicted in a statue at Demre

Saint Nicholas, depicted in a statue at Demre

According to the BBC, a Turkish archaeologist is asking for the supposed relics of Saint Nicholas (c 270-343×6 CE) to be returned from the Italian city of Bari to his home town of Demre, the ancient Lycian city of Myra. Nevzat Çevik, archaeologist for the town, claims that the saint had wished for his bones to remain in the place where he lived, and although he has not provided any evidence that this was Saint Nicholas’s true desire, it seems likely enough that a saintly bishop would want his bones to remain in the community for which he cared.

Born to wealthy parents in the Greek colony of Patara who died while he was still a child, he was subsequently raised by an uncle, also called Nicholas, who was Bishop of Patara. The boy was pious and his uncle instituted him as a Reader in his church, later ordaining him as a priest. He was appointed Bishop of Myra while still young and remained there until his death, aged around 75. During the persecution of Christians by Diocletian, he was exiled and imprisoned but returned to his diocese afterwards. He was interred in a reused Greek sarcophagus that survives in the Church of St Nicholas.

The bones were taken from his tomb in Demre in 1087 by sailors from Bari in Apulia (Italy) during the confusion caused by a Muslim invasion of what remained of the Roman Empire. The local Orthodox monks protested, but the Italians removed the bones for reasons of “security”, a situation that sounds all too familiar in the early twenty-first century. A pious rationalisation of the story has it that the saint appeared to the sailors, begging them to take his bones to safety. Of course, it was only reported after the remains had arrived in Italy. One version of the story claims that most of the remains were taken to Venice, the Barian sailors keeping only an arm.

The plastic Santa Claus of Demre

Santa Claus in Demre: he’s made from plastic, which says it all, really!

Saint Nicholas went on to international superstardom. His reputation for giving surprise gifts (based on an account of his paying the dowries of three daughters of a pauper, who might otherwise have been sold into slavery) led to his being associated with the gift-giving of mid-winter, originally part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. There were also pagan Germanic spirits who were thought to give gifts around the mid-winter festival (the Old English Geol, modern Yule). These ideas combined in the English concept of Father Christmas. Under the guise of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, he entered the multi-ethnic American tradition as Santa Claus. The all-pervading nature of American popular culture during the twentieth century exported the utterly ahistorical Santa Claus around the world, to the ridiculous point that there is now a statue of a fat, white-bearded man dressed in red in the centre of Demre.

Yesterday (28 December 2009), the Turkish government issued a formal request to the Italian government for the return of St Nicholas’s bones. What is the purpose and what are the motives for doing so? Seen in its wider context, this is part of two issues: the “repatriation” of the remains of indigenous peoples taken by colonial powers for “scientific research” and the return of antiquities looted by the same colonial powers. Now, these are serious moral issues to which there are no easy answers. Yes, the colonial powers often behaved abominably towards their subject peoples and sought to control not only their lives but also, in some cases, their dead remains too. Nevertheless, there were scientific advances in physical anthropology from the study of their remains, although that does not excuse the removal of those remains. However, does this mean that all human remains should be returned to the people who claim descent from or cultural affiliation with them? While it may be difficult to argue that the government of the United Kingdom ought not to return the bones and artefacts of, say, Australian aboriginal groups, who have a strong moral claim to those remains, should bones from a Romano-British cemetery be handed over for disposal to a neo-pagan group making similar demands? I think that most people can see that this is rather less reasonable a case.

So where do the bones of Saint Nicholas of Myra fit in? They were not looted by a colonial power (the medieval Italian states had no control over the Roman Empire of Byzantium except during the awful Fourth Crusade), nor were they taken for scientific reasons. They were taken because of the medieval superstition about the power of relics. Many Christian and Muslim sects have still not abandoned the belief that relics have magical properties, allowing the believer closer access to their chosen deity. In the case of the bones of St Nicholas, the magical power, one suspects, is related to tourism. They will act as a magnet for Demre, not for religious reasons but for what seems to have become the new True Meaning of Christmas™: commerce.