It’s a November day in 2017, and Italian postgraduate student Vittoria Dall’Armellina is taking time off from her studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. She’s visiting an Armenian monastery that’s perched on a little island, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, in the Venetian lagoon. But as she explores the early 18th-century building, a sword in a glass display case catches her eye.
Emphasizing that she hadn’t actually been visiting the island monastery for study purposes, in March 2020 Dall’Armellina told the LiveScience website, “It was a pleasure trip.” She added that her journey to the island had been her first. But the sword she’d spotted would trigger a prolonged and meticulous research effort.
Now, the sword that had intrigued Dall’Armellina had been labeled along with other items as being from the medieval era. That meant it was probably a few centuries old. But the young student’s field of study was the early Bronze Age. Her thesis had tackled the topic of grave goods, including weaponry, buried with high-status individuals thousands of years ago.
So Dall’Armellina’s studies made her eminently well-qualified to form an opinion about the 17-inch sword and its purported age. As she told CNN, “I noticed it immediately.” Given that she had closely studied “royal tombs” in the Near Eastern regions of the Aegean, Anatolia and the Caucasus, it’s no surprise that she could spot an anomaly in the sword’s description.
Indeed, according to a February 2020 press release from Ca’ Foscari University, Dall’Armellina had studied “the origins and evolution of swords in the Ancient Near East.” Yes, both her master’s degree thesis and her Ph.D. work had focused on that topic. So it was actually a stroke of luck that someone so well-informed had happened upon the sword at the monastery.
And the true history of the sword would turn out to be a fascinating tale. But how was there an Armenian Catholic monastery on a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon in the first place? The name of the island translates as “St. Lazarus of the Armenians.” But Venice is a long way from Armenia, some 1,700 miles to the east.
At one time the monastery was actually a leper colony. That explains the St. Lazarus part of the name since he is the patron saint for lepers. The leper sanctuary existed from the 12th to the 16th centuries after which the island was abandoned for a while.
That takes us back to the arrival of an Armenian monk in Venice in 1715. Faced with persecution from Turkish invaders the monk, Mechitar, had been forced to flee his homeland. And in 1701 he established a church and a convent in the Venetian-controlled territory of Modon in Greece. However, hostilities with Venice broke out, forcing Mechitar to flee again.
Now, the Turks went on to destroy the church Mechitar had established in Greece. But in 1715, he arrived safely in Venice with 16 of his monks. Then in 1717 the Venetians granted the island of San Lazzaro to the Armenian monks. At last, Mechitar and his followers had a new home, albeit on a tiny island.
And the monks set to work. As well as constructing the main monastery building, establishing the new Armenian center involved refurbishing the derelict leper’s chapel. The industrious monks even increased the area of their island haven by a factor of four. It must have been back-breaking work, but at last they had a safe sanctuary where they could pursue their faith in peace.
Mechitar himself died in San Lazzaro in 1749 at the age of 74, but his legacy lives on. The Mechitarist monks remain on the island to this day, and visitors can travel there by vaporetto, a Venetian water bus. The monks offer guided tours of their island which is a treasure trove of Armenian cultural artifacts.
In fact, best-selling American author Frances Mayes paid a visit to San Lazzaro, describing her experience to Smithsonian Magazine in 2015. “I arrived at a serene cloister,” she wrote, “and with a few others followed a copiously bearded monk around the complex.” Breaking free of her guide, she took the opportunity to do some exploring.
As Mayes wandered around the monastery, she came across “mummies, marble busts, rose-water liqueur made by the monks.” But, as she pointed out, “What the monastery is most known for is the library of glass-fronted cases holding some of the monks’ 150,000 volumes, arranged around a room beneath frescoes of church elders who are reading books.”
One room in the monastery is devoted to commemorating the British 19th-century poet Lord Byron. You see, he paid many visits to the island monastery when he was living in Venice in 1816. Over a six-month period he worked with the monks to start work on an English-Armenian dictionary. And it’s said that he used to swim out to the island from the city.
So that’s the story of the island that Dall’Armellina decided to visit on a November day in 2017. But little did she know that a series of events would be triggered by her visit inside the monastery. In fact, it was when she came across a glass display case that her moment of revelation came.
The case contained a variety of objects, and its description asserted that they all came from the medieval era, meaning they were a few hundred years old. But Dall’Armellina’s attention was attracted by a sword amongst the other artifacts. She felt sure that this weapon was much older than just a matter of centuries. Indeed, she believed that it was likely to be thousands of years old.
Dall’Armellina told the LiveScience website, “I thought that I knew that type of sword and that I was certain it was contemporary with those of Arslantepe and Sivas.” Those two places are in eastern Anatolia, today part of modern Turkey. Swords found in those locations date back as many as 5,000 years. And furthermore, experts believe they are the oldest swords in the world.
But was Dall’Armellina’s hunch right? After all, her only evidence was her brief sight of the sword in its glass case. If her belief was to be confirmed, there was going to have to be some thorough research. Well, that was her next task, and she set the ball rolling by talking to Professor Elena Rova.
The professor of archaeology was Dall’Armellina’s Ph.D. supervisor, and she gave her student the go-ahead to research the origins of this mysterious sword. This was despite the fact that Rova was somewhat skeptical of her student’s claims. But a photograph of the weapon banished her doubts according to CNN. In any case, how had what might be an ancient weapon from Anatolia turned up in the museum of an Armenian monastery?
Well, it was a puzzle. Rova even admitted to CNN that “I had visited the monastery several times throughout the years and never noticed the sword.” This made Dall’Armellina’s realization that the weapon didn’t look medieval all the more amazing. But now it was time to find out if her intuition was sound.
The student’s first move was to contact the monks on San Lazzaro to see what they knew about the sword. They were able to tell her that their catalogue of objects did not identify the sword as being from the ancient lands of Eastern Anatolia. That piece of information did nothing to confirm Dall’Armellina’s theory. But neither did it definitively contradict it.
However, one of the San Lazzaro monks did tell Dall’Armellina something about how the sword had come to the island monastery. Yes, Father Serafino Jamourlian pored over the records and was able to piece together at least part of the sword’s journey to the island. It had been a convoluted odyssey.
After searching the archives, Jamourlian discovered that the sword, along with a collection of other archaeological finds, had been donated to a monk called Ghevond Alishan some 150 years ago. The donor himself was a prominent Armenian called Yervant Khorasandjian, a civil engineer who was a collector of art and antiquities.
Speaking to CNN, Jamourlian said that he’d come across an autobiographical essay written by Khorasandjian. In this text, Khorasandjian recalled the time when he’d been a student at a Mechitarist school in Paris, France. The principal had been Alishan. This led Jamourlian to believe that Khorasandjian’s donation had been “a gift of thankfulness [to]…the institution that forged him.”
Alishan, known in his priestly role as Father Leonzio, died in 1901 on San Lazzaro. After his demise the donated collection became the property of the San Lazzaro monastery. Still, Jamourlian’s research unearthed some further fascinating facts about the mystifying sword. Yes, he came across a handwritten note.
This note, written in Armenian script, had been appended to the sword when it was donated. And it revealed that the sword had been discovered in a village on the shores of the Black Sea. This village, Kavak, was close to the site of an ancient Greek settlement called Trebizond, now known as Trabzon and located in the east of modern Turkey.
Therefore, the sword now had a story that pinpointed its geographical past from the 19th century to the present. But Dall’Armellina’s belief was that the sword was much older than that, perhaps dating back thousands of years. She’d reached that conclusion because of the weapon’s physical resemblance to other swords that were definitely from around 5,000 years ago.
You see, Dall’Armellina had come across two examples of ancient swords from the near East in her studies. They were weapons that had been found in Arslantepe and Sivas. These were ancient settlements in the eastern part of ancient Anatolia, now in modern Turkey. And researchers had determined that those weapons dated form around 3000 B.C.
So the student believed the San Lazzaro sword was recognizably similar in design to the weapons from Arslantepe and Sivas. And those swords were reckoned to be the oldest known to history. Archaeologists even theorize that the sword itself may have been invented in the Eastern Anatolian region.
However, there was only one way to be sure about the origins of the sword from the monastery’s display cabinet. Yes, the metal composition of the weapon would have to undergo chemical analysis. And Professor Ivana Angelina of the University of Padua set about this painstaking task, aided by CIBA, an archeological research center.
The experts discovered that the sword had been made from a metal alloy, arsenical copper. And this was used by metalworkers some 5,000 years ago in antiquity before bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was widely adopted. That was one piece of telling evidence which gave a likely provenance for the weapon.
And it was music to the ears of Dall’Armellina. Speaking to LiveScience she said, “I was pretty sure of the antiquity of the sword. When the results of the analysis revealed that the material was arsenical copper, it was a great satisfaction.” So her hunch that the sword was much older than the medieval period appeared to have been proved correct.
But the results of the chemical analysis were only one part of the picture. Equally important were the comparisons with other ancient Anatolian swords whose dates were already confirmed. Notably the San Lazzaro sword bore a striking resemblance to a pair of swords found at the royal Anatolian Arslantepe site we mentioned earlier.
Furthermore, there was another ancient sword, held by the Tokat Museum in Turkey, which had been unearthed in the Turkish province of Sivas. It too was very similar in shape to the San Lazzaro sword. And all of these weapons had been forged from that very same ancient metal alloy, arsenical copper. So after two years of research, the scientists were now able to confidently date the San Lazzaro sword.
Indeed, and they dated it to sometime between the end of the fourth century B.C. and the early third century B.C. And, according to the experts, this type of sword was a rare find. You see, archaeologists have only found examples like this in a limited area of Eastern Anatolia between the Euphrates River and the Black Sea.
What’s more, Ca’Foscari University experts speculated that the sword was likely to have been a component in a ceremonial burial. It may have been stumbled across by villagers at some point along with other grave goods. Those would have been separated and disposed of, which was a common occurrence.
Speaking to LiveScience, Elena Rova, who you’ll remember was Dall’Armellina’s doctoral supervisor, expanded on the significance of the San Lazzaro sword. She said, “It seems that in this area, between the northern Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, the sword was invented, and there were at least two typological variants.”
Rova continued, “Local chiefs were buried with a lot of weapons and other precious objects. They probably wanted to emphasize their status as warriors, and the sword was one of the symbols.” So in all likelihood, this sword would have adorned the grave of a powerful warrior leader more than two millennia ago.
Anyway, the sword has now been given its own exhibit space at the San Lazzaro monastery’s museum. And, most significantly, it’s no longer misattributed as being from medieval times. Speaking to CNN, Jamourlian said “When the news first broke, people called in asking, ‘Can we come see it?’”
So if Vittoria Dall’Armellina hadn’t decided to take a trip to the San Lazzaro monastery back in 2017, this extraordinary weapon would still likely be languishing in obscurity. But thanks to an extraordinary piece of serendipity, the sword now has its rightful place. Therefore, perhaps archaeology owes a considerable debt to the sharp eyes of the young student.