Analysis of the putative remains of a European patron saint - St. Birgitta

Martina Nilsson, Göran Possnert, Hanna Edlund, Bruce Budowle, Anna Kjellström, Marie Allen

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Saint Birgitta (Saint Bridget of Sweden) lived between 1303 and 1373 and was designated one of Europe's six patron saints by the Pope in 1999. According to legend, the skulls of St. Birgitta and her daughter Katarina are maintained in a relic shrine in Vadstena abbey, mid Sweden. The origin of the two skulls was assessed first by analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to confirm a maternal relationship. The results of this analysis displayed several differences between the two individuals, thus supporting an interpretation of the two skulls not being individuals that are maternally related. Because the efficiency of PCR amplification and quantity of DNA suggested a different amount of degradation and possibly a very different age for each of the skulls, an orthogonal procedure, radiocarbon dating, was performed. The radiocarbon dating results suggest an age difference of at least 200 years and neither of the dating results coincides with the period St. Birgitta or her daughter Katarina lived. The relic, thought to originate from St. Birgitta, has an age corresponding to the 13th century (1215-1270 cal AD, 2σ confidence), which is older than expected. Thus, the two different analyses are consistent in questioning the authenticity of either of the human skulls maintained in the Vadstena relic shrine being that of St. Birgitta. Of course there are limitations when interpreting the data of any ancient biological materials and these must be considered for a final decision on the authenticity of the remains.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8986
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
StatePublished - 16 Feb 2010


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