Galilee gardener digs up medieval ring bearing smiling St. Nicholas

700-year-old bronze band is emblazoned with image of patron saint of pilgrims, whose reputation for gift-giving turned him into Santa Claus in Christian West

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The ring found by gardener Dekel Ben-Shitrit thought to depict St. Nicholas with a bishop's crook. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)
The ring found by gardener Dekel Ben-Shitrit thought to depict St. Nicholas with a bishop's crook. (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A routine session of weeding recently yielded an unusual reward for gardener Dekel Ben-Shitrit — a rare, intact bronze ring bearing an image of the traveler’s patron saint, St. Nicholas, that was apparently dropped by a medieval-era pilgrim making his or way to the Galilee in Israel’s north.

Ben-Shitrit, 26, was working in the garden in Moshav Hayogev in the Lower Galilee when he noticed something unusual in the planting bed.

“I rubbed it slightly and I saw it was carved with a human image inside a frame,” he later recalled.

A resident of nearby Kibbutz Hazorea, he posted a photo of the find on Facebook, hoping to get some information.

Gardener Dekel Ben-Shitrit with the ring he found while weeding. (Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A kibbutz neighbor, Dror Ben-Yosef, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Lower Galilee Education Center, saw it and put Ben-Shitrit in touch with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Yana Tchekhanovetz, an IAA archaeologist who specializes in the Byzantine period, dated the ring to some time between the Crusader and Mameluke periods — from the 12th to the 15 centuries — and said it was “amazingly well preserved and will contribute a great deal to science.”

The image of a bald smiling man holding a staff appeared to be St. Nicholas with his hallmark bishop’s crook, she said.

In Eastern Christianity, St. Nicholas was considered the patron saint of travel, including of pilgrims and sailors, she went on, “so Christian pilgrims to the Land of Israel from all over the Byzantine Empire (Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and present-day Russia) would carry his icon to protect them from harm. It is probable that the ring belonged to a pilgrim who sought the protection of St. Nicholas on his travels.”

Yotam Tepper, a fellow IAA archaeologist who specializes in Roman roads, said, “We know that the main Roman road from Legio [near Tel Megiddo] to Mount Tabor passed next to Moshav Yogev, and the road must also have been used throughout the centuries by Christian pilgrims on their way to the sites on Mount Tabor, Nazareth and around the Sea of Galilee.”

St. Nicholas was also believed to be a miracle worker and to give gifts in secret — characteristics that led the Western Christian world to turn him into the Christmas Eve gift-giver, Santa Claus.

For his troubles, Ben-Shitrit will receive the gift of an IAA good citizenship certificate.

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