Bones of a Georgia Saint?

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he weathered skull in Chris Stojanowski's luggage passed through Atlanta's airport security without turning a single head.

As cold cases go, the cranium in his custom-made carry-on case was a classic. A long time ago, someone lost his head --- this particular head --- near present-day Darien, on the Georgia coast.

Now Stojanowski, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University's new School of Human Evolution and Social Change, wants to find out more about the brittle skull which, until recently, was gathering dust in a Georgia laboratory.

The Rev. Conrad Harkins is curious, too. For more than a decade, he has worked tirelessly to see that five Spanish missionaries killed by Indians on the Georgia coast in 1597 are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as martyrs and, perhaps in time, as saints.

Are these the relics of a prospective saint, or just the bones of another sinner? Time --- along with some forensic investigation, a little DNA analysis and some luck --- may tell.

A half-century after the skull was unearthed at the site of a former Spanish mission near Darien, and 20 years after the Diocese of Savannah proposed beatification for the "Georgia martyrs," science and religion have found a common bond in their curiosity about the weathered remains.

"Without any living relatives, there is little chance of being very definitive about the identity," says Stojanowski. "But there are some tests that can narrow the possibilities."

That prospect has persuaded Harkins, historian at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the official "vice postulator" for the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs, to spend a little of the faithful's money on a scientific long shot.

"The case for beatification of the Georgia martyrs is a historical one, and it will be accepted or rejected by the Vatican on the basis of the historical record," Harkins says.

The portfolio of Spanish records and the reports of Franciscan friars documenting the missionaries' martyrdom --- compiled, notarized and copied in triplicate --- is now ready for submission to a Vatican tribunal this year.

Physical remains are not required for beatification. But the unsubstantiated suggestion by an archaeologist in the 1950s that the skull might be that of one of the missionaries, Pedro de Corpa, is enough to pique Harkins' curiosity.

The curious thread that now ties science, history and religion reaches back to 1597 and a violent clash of cultures between the Franciscan missionaries on the Georgia coast and the Guale Indians they ministered to. At issue was the Guale custom of bigamy: de Corpa insisted that Church would not condone the decision by the local chief's eldest son, Juanillo, to take a second wife.

An angry Juanillo and a band of warriors attacked de Corpa at his morning prayers, beat him to death and then beheaded him, placing his head on a pike. Spanish military sources investigating later reported that during the next few days, the Indians killed four other missionaries.

The remains of three missionaries were retrieved after their deaths, but the bodies of de Corpa and another, Francisco de Verascola, who was scalped, were never recovered.

There the story might have ended, but for archaeologist Sheila Caldwell.

In the early 1950s, while excavating the state-owned Fort King George historical site --- then believed to be the site of the Guale village where de Corpa died --- she found the skull in question in a native trash pit. She promptly decided that it must be the skull of the beheaded Franciscan friar.

Moved by the story of the slain missionaries and by renewed public interest in Georgia's mission period, the bishop of Savannah, Raymond Lassard, launched the "cause of beatification" of the "martyrs for marriage" in 1984, a step that started the five missionaries on the Church's long and arduous road to sainthood.

"It's not enough to simply prove that they were killed, you have to prove that they died for the faith," explains Harkins, who has championed the cause.

Stojanowski quickly concluded that the skull was that of an adult male, of an age compatible with either of the two missing friars, who were in their 30s when they died. Anatomically, it also didn't appear to be Native American.

As in any crime scene investigation, there are also some confounding factors.

"All of the physical evidence points to de Corpa, but the location is more suggestive of de Verascola," Stojanowski says.

It could, of course, be neither.

And that's why Stojanowski recently flew to Atlanta to take custody of object FKG-121 --- partial cranium, property of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources --- and return with it in his carry-on luggage to his Tempe, Ariz., laboratory.

Over the next year, he hopes to more accurately date the skull, perform a number of chemical analyses of the bone that may suggest the person's diet and, perhaps --- if donor contributions will support the expense --- recover enough DNA to suggest its ancestral affiliation.

As the owner of FKG-121, the state of Georgia must approve each test in advance.

"Archaeology is, at its heart, about solving mysteries, and we certainly have one here," says Georgia State Archaeologist Dave Crass, who approved the loan of the skull for research.

Harkins' principal objective, of course, is to see that the missionaries get recognized by the Church as true martyrs. The next step, elevation to sainthood, will require proof, in the Church's eyes, of at least one miracle in their names.

Harkins' Web site,, invites those who believe they have "received from God an extraordinary favor though the intercession" of the martyrs to file a concise report.

But miracles aside, Harkins sees opportunity in another cause --- to stir public interest in a forgotten chapter of American history whose legacy is slowly being rediscovered in the archaeological record and in the dusty archives of America's first colonial power.

"I'm afraid most Americans have no appreciation for this part of our history," he says, "and many of them, sadly, don't know about it at all."

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