Gardener in Galilee finds medieval St. Nicholas ring

Dekel Ben-Shitrit was weeding a garden of a home in the Moshav Yogev (a moshav is a cooperative farming community similar to a kibbutz only not collectively owned), when he spotted an object in the vegetation. It was a ring with what appeared to be a human figure on it. Curious to know more about it, Ben-Shitrit posted a picture on Facebook where it caught the eye of Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef, director of the Israel Nature and Park’s Authority Lower Galilee Education Center and his neighbor on the nearby Kibbutz Hazorea. Dr. Ben-Yosef recognized its advanced age and uniqueness and recommended he report the find to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The ring was examined by IAA Byzantine archaeology expert Dr. Yana Tchekhanovets whose preliminary identification indicates it is a representation of Saint Nicholas. The iconography of a haloed bald man wearing a mantle and holding a bishop’s staff points to him. It is a signet ring in excellent condition that makes a deep imprint that clearly shows the attributes of the Christian saint. Dr. Tchekhanovets dated the ring to between the 12th and 15th centuries. Crusader Jerusalem was conquered by the Islamic forces of Saladin in 1187, and the last Christian territory, Acre, fell in 1291. That broad date means the ring could have been crossing the Holy Land when it was under Christian or Muslim control.

You can get a look at the ring’s imprint in this IAA video at the 38 second mark:

Obviously the figure depicted on the ring bares no relation to the Jolly Old Elf so associated with the contemporary tradition of Christmas gift-giving. The Saint Nicholas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition was more akin to the Western Saint Christopher, patron saint of all travelers, including merchants, sailors and pilgrims. Wearing a ring or medallion with his image — his attributes are the bishop’s crook and vestments — was meant to confer his protection on the wearer.

The spot where the ring was found, in the Jezreel Valley just east of Megiddo near the Roman base of Legio, was a busy travel route for merchants, soldiers and pilgrims from antiquity onwards.

Dr. Yotam Tepper, an expert on the ancient Roman road system in Israel, points out that even after the last Crusader knights had departed, Christian communities continued to exist and Christian pilgrims continued to visit Jerusalem and the Galilee.[…]

“We know that the main road from Legio toward Mount Tabor passed by Moshav Hayogev,” says Tepper. “It seems the road also served Christian pilgrims heading for holy sites on Mount Tabor, and in Nazareth and around Lake Kinneret.”

It’s entirely possible that a medieval pilgrim lost his ring on his way to or from the coast. There’s no way of knowing for certain because the ring was not buried and found in situ during a rigorous archaeological excavation, but rather found nestled in weeds on the surface, so it probably wasn’t discovered where it fell hundreds of years ago.

According to hagiographical lore, Saint Nicholas was himself a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Born to a wealthy Greek family in Lycia (modern-day Turkey), Nicholas was raised by an uncle who was an abbot and became a monk at a very young age. One of the earliest miracles he is said to have performed — predicting a storm at sea, praying it away, raising a sailor who had died in a fall from rigging — was when he was a young man on his first pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. He returned to the Holy Land when he was in 40s, joining a group of ascetic monks and living in a mountain cave outside Bethlehem for several years. When he emerged, he again made a pilgrimage to all the main sites of the gospel accounts.

Pilgrims would carry his image with them even as they followed his example for many long centuries after Nicholas’ death in 343 A.D., but surviving pieces like this ring are very rare. They are easily overlooked, trafficked or kept by finders.

Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority anti-theft inspector, who received the ring from Ben-Shitrit to place it in the National Treasures Collection, had high praise for the gardener: “We thank Ben-Shitrit for handing over this special artifact to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and we encourage others to do the same, When they do, they enrich and deepen archaeological understanding of the past that belongs to all of us. The Israel Antiquities Authority will be awarding Ben-Shitrit a good citizenship certificate in thanks for his action.”

5 thoughts on “Gardener in Galilee finds medieval St. Nicholas ring

  1. Whatever it takes, the IAA should dig a little deeper, as there almost certainly a reindeer sleigh is still buried to the ground! :ohnoes:

    After the Battle of Nicopolis on September 28 in 1396, a teenage Johann Schiltberger was not executed but taken prisoner and Bayezid I took him into his service (1396–1402). He seems to have accompanied Ottoman troops to certain parts of Asia Minor and to Egypt, until Bayezid was overthrown at the Battle of Ankara (1402) and Schiltberger passed into the service of Bayezid’s conqueror Timur. Later, he ended up in Siberia but managed to return safely to Bavaria in 1427. There were apparently still Christians around, as he writes about the Jordan valley:

    “Von Jherusalem an das tot mer seind zwai hundert stadia und ist hundert und fünfftzig praitt. Der Jordan rint in das tot mer und nicht verr davon, da ist Sant Johanns kirchen; und ain wenig hinauff paß da padent sich die Christen gemainiglich in dem Jordan; der Jordan ist nicht groß und nicht tieff; er hatt aber gut visch; und chompt von einem perg und entspringt von zwaien prunnen, der ain haist Jor und der ander Dan; und von den zwaien prunnen hatt er den nam; und rint durch ein seu und rintt unter ein perg hin und chompt auff ein schöne weytten, do haben die haiden offt marckt im jar dorauff. Auff der selbigen weytt ist Sandt Jacobs grab; und auff dem selbigen veld lagen wir ze veld mitt einem jungen chönig wol mitt XXX thausent man, wann der Türcken chönig hett uns im gelihen. Es sein auch vil Cristen umb den Jordan und haben auch vil kirchen dopey.”

  2. This exceeded my expectations, I saw an article about this find yesterday in our local paper and wondered how long, if at all, until it appeared in the History Blog. Thanks so much.

  3. So apparently there is no Treasure Trove law and finders are not compensated for reporting their finds? Not much is going to turn up then I suppose.

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