Ancient relic depicting Moses, Ten Commandments found in Austria

Researchers in Austria found an ancient relic depicting the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments in a centuries-old church in the southern part of the country, according to a news release from the University of Innsbruck.

The archaeologists were exploring a Christian church in a hilltop settlement in Irschen that was abandoned in 610 A.D. in 2022 when they found a small marble shrine hidden under the altar of a side chapel. Inside the shrine was a "heavily fragmented" box, or pyx, made of ivory and "richly decorated with Christian motifs."

The item was a reliquary that would typically be taken from a church when it was abandoned, but this one was left behind, the news release said, allowing for more research opportunities. This is the first one found in an excavation in about a century, lead archaeologist Gerald Grabherr said in the news release. Just 40 such boxes have been found worldwide, most of which are now on display in museums.

Ivory fragments of the pyx arranged on a white background. / Credit: University of Innsbruck
Ivory fragments of the pyx arranged on a white background. / Credit: University of Innsbruck

The 1,500-year-old relic is still being studied at the University of Innsbruck, and researchers have made new progress in analyzing it. Ulrike T?chterle, the head of a restoration workshop at the university, said the relic is very fragile and cannot be put back together, but a 3D reconstruction is underway.

The ongoing research helped T?chterle, Grabherr and other researchers learn more about the carvings on the relic. At one end of the pyx is a carving of a man at the foot of a mountain while a hand descends from the sky to give him an object.

Moses receives the commandments from the hand of God. / Credit: University of Innsbruck
Moses receives the commandments from the hand of God. / Credit: University of Innsbruck

"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," Grabherr said.

Other locations on the box show biblical figures, including a man riding a chariot pulled by two horses as a hand emerges from the sky to pull him to heaven. Grabherr said researchers assume this is "a depiction of the ascension of" Jesus Christ.

"The depiction of scenes from the Old Testament and their connection with scenes from the New Testament is typical of late antiquity and thus fits in with our pyx; however, the depiction of the Ascension of Christ with a so-called biga, a two-horse chariot, is very special and previously unknown," he said.

Ascension of Christ on a biga. / Credit: University of Innsbruck
Ascension of Christ on a biga. / Credit: University of Innsbruck

T?chterle said researchers are continuing to analyze the relic to learn more about the origin of the marble it was carved from, and to learn about other materials, like wood and metal, that were used in the item.

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