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Constantine--York's Roman Emperor is being celebrated in my home town at present, 1700 years after being proclaimed emperor there in AD 306, with an exhibition organised by York Museum curator Elizabeth Hartley and opened by the Princess Royal and Giovanni Brauzzi, Minister of the Italian Embassy. It stays open until 29 October. Visitors can admire the chariot-racing medallion from Trier, featuring winning charioteer Porphyrius and lead horse Fontanus, as well as the life-sized steaming bronze goose from Constantinople and a remarkable copper-alloy dice-tower from Vettweiss-Froitzheim with an inscription that announces that 'the Picts are conquered--so the Romans can play'. Perhaps most evocative of all is the head's worth of auburn hair with jet hair pins in place discovered in a lead-lined coffin when York's railway station--icon of a new empire--was constructed. In the luxurious catalogue Lindsay-Allason Jones comments: 'the women of the Roman empire were always changing their hairstyles'--although the bun wound round at the back was always popular and became, moreover, the only hairstyle to be approved by early Christian Fathers.

But there is a lot more at stake here than the display of a large number of splendid objects. Born in Nis (modern Serbia) to a Romanian father and an Anatolian mother, Constantine was a true child of the kind of Europe that many modern Europeans would also like to live in: one characterised by jaunty political initiatives, business acumen and social mobility--a role model, in fact, for the first president of the European Union.

Or perhaps not. This talk of Constantine puts me in mind of his mother Helena, and the search for her spade. Helena was a role model too--for a new generation of early Christian heroic women who have perhaps yet to find the biographical status they deserve. Helena was an innkeeper's daughter, meeting Constantius, according to some accounts when she was 16, and bearing him a son, the future Christian emperor around AD 272. On his rise to stardom Constantius put her aside in favour of Theodora, daughter of the Caesar Maximian, who bore him six more children. Constantine curiously performed a rather similar marital manoeuvre, putting aside his first wife Minervina and son Crispus in favour of another of Maximian's daughters Fausta (and five more children).

Helena was described rather harshly by churchman Philostorgius as 'no better than a strumpet', but she held on to her career by astute politics--and by taking up archaeology. She is said to have levelled the Temple of Venus in Jerusalem in order to excavate the Holy Sepulchre from which she retrieved the wood of Christ's cross and his titulus. She had the fragments of wood (or whatever she found) encased in a number of reliquaries, including one inside a porphyry statue of Constantine that stood in the forum in Constantinople, while another was to become the hostage in a middle eastern war. Helena, who began life as a barmaid, ended it at the age of eighty as a Christian saint, which all goes to show that a youthful indiscretion can pay dividends. According to Wikipedia, Helena is the patron saint of archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages, divorced people, empresses and (less explicably) Colchester. Although her symbol is the cross or (as an empress) a branch, I have heard that she has been depicted with a spade or shovel, tools preferred by early archaeologists. If any reader can guide me to an example of such iconography--in any medium--I will be eager to print it.

The scientific analysis of cultural material throws light on social interaction. At least that's the hope. Analyses such as INAA (Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis) used to characterise pottery fabric, are key instruments in the tool box of major research projects designed to discover social, economic or political patterns. But is that what they do? Our correspondent Doug Kennett highlights a lively debate currently flaming in the hinterland of Olmec culture. …