Tomorrow (August 18th) is the feast of Saint Helena of Constantinople who is the little-known patron saint of archaeologists. In fact, due to her spiritual motivation, she was probably one of the first people ever to have embarked upon archaeological fieldwork.
Helena was born around 250 AD in Drepanum, in the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey). Her early life was probably quite ordinary for a girl growing up in the late Classical period (she was, apparently, a barmaid), until that is, she met Constantius, a soldier serving in her province under Emperor Aurelian. It is recorded that Helena and Constantius were wearing matching silver bracelets, a sign Constantius took that he had met his soul mate; he called her a gift sent from God.
Whether they married or not is a technicality that is now lost to time but Constantius star was rising (he eventually climbed to become Emperor) and a lowly barmaid from Drepanum did not suit his ambitions. So he cast Helena aside and took another wife, Theodora. This was a little after Helena had borne him a son, Constantine, probably the most significant mortal ever born. Helena and Constantine were sent to live out their days in the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, their bond growing ever closer through their solitude.
Following Constantius’ death upon campaign against the Picts of Scotland, his troops looked for a likely successor and settled upon Constantine, who they rose to Emperor in 306 AD. Constantine immediately restored his beloved mother from obscurity and made her honorary Empress of the new empire he established in the east.
Having unfettered access to her son’s treasury, Helena undertook a trip to Palestine during 326 to 328 AD. This was with the express intention of recovering the relics of Christianity, a burgeoning religion she had adopted and, later, to which her son would convert, setting in motion the Christianisation of most of Europe and beyond. Helena’s trip was probably the first archaeological mission in history.
After distributing largesse to the poor and needy along her route – this was a time when such charity was a cornerstone of the new religion – she turned her attention to fieldwork. According to legendary accounts, Helena was moved by the Holy Spirit to dig in Jerusalem, whereupon she found wood from three crosses. Some sources say that she immediately knew which one was the cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the plaque affixed upon it, declaring him King of the Jews. Another source says that she took all tree crosses to a sick woman and, touching her with each in turn, identified the holy cross upon the woman’s miraculous recovery.
Helena also found part of Christ’s tunic, the rope with which he was lashed to the cross, and also the nails that went through Christ’s hands and feet (but not his body as, according to scripture, this ascended to heaven). She sent one of the nails to her son who made it into a horse bridle, so honouring the prophecy linking the nails to “the bells of horses”. Unwittingly, Helena also sparked the cult of relics and thousands of pieces of the true cross were to find their way across Europe, most with rather dubious pedigree. There is still a Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Helena died a little after her return from Palestine in 330 AD with her son at her side. She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, just outside Rome, and, what is claimed as her sarcophagus, now lies in the Vatican Museum. Despite some unsavoury elements to her life – she was implicated in the deaths of Constantine’s wife and son – beautification followed death and she is now Saint Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists in recognition of her search for the relics of Christ. Not bad for a onetime barmaid.