An image of Santa Claus in the Holy Land from the Middle Ages has given Israeli archaeologists a special reason to feel festive.

Dekel Ben-Shitrit was landscaping a garden in Moshav Hayogev in the Jezreel Valley when an object tucked away among the plants caught his eye. It was a ring with a human figure on it.

Ben-Shitrit knew the ring was old but he didn’t know if it was valuable or unique. So he posted a picture of the ring on – where else? – Facebook.

Ben-Shitrit’s neighbor on nearby Kibbutz Hazorea, Dror Ben-Yosef, director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Lower Galilee Education Center, saw the picture and connected Ben-Shitrit with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The image on the ring is of St. Nicholas, the best-known source of the gift-giving Christmas character Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was believed to be a miracle worker who gave gifts in secret.

Gardener Dekel Ben-Shitrit with the St. Nicholas ring he found. Photo by Nir Distelfeld/Israel Antiquities Authority

The ring dates from the 12th to 15th century, explained Yana Tchekhanovetz, an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist specializing in the Byzantine period.

“On the ring is the image of a bald man with a staff next to him. On preliminary examination, this seems to be St. Nicholas holding a bishop’s crook – his hallmark,” Tchekhanovetz said. “This special ring is amazingly well preserved and will contribute a great deal to science.”

In the Eastern Christian world, St. Nicholas is considered the patron saint of travelers. The ring probably belonged to a pilgrim who sought the protection of St. Nicholas on his or her travels, Tchekhanovetz added.

Moshav Hayogev is located east of Tel Megiddo and settlements from the Roman and Byzantine period at nearby Legio. The main Roman road from Legio to Mount Tabor passed next to the moshav, explained Yotam Tepper, also with the Israel Antiquities Authority and an expert on Roman roads.

“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.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority is awarding Ben-Shitrit a “good citizenship certificate” in appreciation.