Italian archaeologist Vittoria Dall’Armellina was a PhD student at Ca’ Foscari University in 2017 when she visited the Saint Lazarus monastery.
Sitting atop a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon, the monastery is home to the Mekhitarist friars, an Armenian Catholic congregation who settled there in 1717 and have furthered the preservation of Armenian heritage and antiquities ever since.
During a guided tour of the monastery’s museum, in the last display case before the exit, something caught Dall’Armellina’s attention: a metal sword, about 17 inches long, resembling those she came across in her studies as a Bronze Age weaponry specialist.
“I noticed it immediately,” she told CNN. The sword was labeled as a medieval artifact, but Dall’Armellina had a hunch that the object was much older than that.
She was correct. Two years worth of research confirmed the sword is among the most ancient ones ever found, dating as far back as 5,000 years ago.
Chemical composition analyses carried out in partnership with the University of Padua revealed that the sword is made of arsenical bronze, an alloy of copper and arsenic. This alloy was typically used between the end of the 4th and beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, before the use of bronze took hold.
The chemical composition of the sword matches that of other specimens found in the Royal Palace of Arslantepe, an archaeological site in Eastern Anatolia, and the sword found in the Tokat Museum in Turkey, originating in the Sivas region. Their shapes are also remarkably similar.
The shape was in fact a tell-tale sign for Dall’Armellina, who focused her studies on the analysis of funerary objects retrieved in so-called “royal tombs” in the Caucasus, Anatolia and Aegean regions during the Bronze Age.
At the time, a new noble class of warriors was on the rise, and it’s in those regions that archaeologists believe swords were first forged, both as weapons and as symbols of authority.
Early swords would be buried with owners in their graves, along with other insignias of high-ranking social status.
“Swords are objects loaded with symbolic value,” Professor Elena Rova, who supervised Dall’Armellina’s doctoral research, told CNN.
“They signify royalty, and a ruler’s right to sovereignty – take for example the legend of King Arthur. While this symbolism is well documented in medieval times, it has roots in much more ancient traditions,” Professor Rova added.
In order to confirm the provenance of the Saint Lazarus sword, Dall’Armellina and Rova partnered with Father Serafino Jamourlian, an archival researcher in the monastery.
He told CNN that the sword was part of a shipment of archaeological artifacts sent by Yervant Khorasandjian, a leading civil engineer in the Ottoman Empire, to Father Ghevont Alishan. Alishan was a historian, poet and prominent member of the Mekhitarist congregation, who died on Saint Lazarus island in 1901.
“The lucky strike” that unlocked the history of the sword, according to Jamourlian, was finding a compilation of autobiographies by notable Armenians from the early 1900s in the monastery’s archives. Khorasandjian, who wrote his entry in 1918, mentioned studying in Paris in the late 1800s in a Mekhitarist school whose principal was Father Alishan.
Jamourlian believes the sword was “a gift of thankfulness” from Khorasandjian to “the institution that forged him.”
The sword did indeed travel from Kavak, near Trabzon, in Turkey, to Saint Lazarus, between August and September 1886. The director of the Mekhitarist college in Trabzon, Father Minas Nurikhan, handled the shipment of the gift, as documented in correspondence between him and Father Alishan from 1886 found at the monastery, further corroborating the events.
Jamourlian took issue with articles about the story describing Khorasandjian as an art collector and archaeologist, saying: “That’s absolutely not true.”
He believes that Khorasandjian came in possession of the sword as he was overseeing major public works projects in the region.
When Dall’Armellina, who has since completed her studies, first approached Professor Rova with her initial intuition about the sword, Rova was “a bit skeptical,” she told CNN, but when she saw a picture of the artifact, she was gobsmacked.
“I had visited the monastery several times throughout the years and never noticed the sword,” Rova said.
She called Dall’Armellina’s discovery “unbelievable,” and “a great satisfaction,” and wishes for the archaeologist to continue her research endeavors.
Dall’Armellina told CNN she was “fairly certain” of her first intuition, but after receiving the results of the chemical analyses and confirmation of the sword’s provenance through Father Jamourlian’s research, “it all came full circle.”
Now in its own display, the sword caught immediate attention. “When the news first broke, people called in asking, ‘Can we come see it?’,” Jamourlian told CNN.
The museum, which is currently closed due to the coronavirus epidemic, looks forward to welcoming guests to view the relic once it has reopened.