St. John the Baptist Relics Found in Bulgaria’s Sozopol ‘Could’ Be Authentic, Oxford Archaeology Dating Expert Finds

The St. John the Baptist relics - five bone particles and a tooth - at the time of the opening of the 4th century reliquary (on August 1, 2010) they were found in dug up from an Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Isalnd near Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, their discoverer.

The St. John the Baptist relics – five bone particles and a tooth – at the time of the opening of the 4th century reliquary (on August 1, 2010) they were found in dug up from an Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Isalnd near Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The relics of St. John the Baptist, which were discovered on the St. Ivan Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol back in 2010, belonged to a Middle Eastern man who lived at the time of Jesus Christ, an Oxford radiocarbon dating expert has confirmed.

In August 2010, during excavations of an ancient monastery on the Bulgarian Black Sea island St. Ivan (St. John) near Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist.

The discovery of St. John the Baptist’s relics, which consist of small bone particles from a skull, jaw bone, arm bone, and tooth, has generated great international interest ever since, and now scholars from Oxford University have completed tests partly confirming the authenticity of the saintly bones, CNN reports citing Prof. Tom Higham from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

Higham, an Oxford University scientist and an atheist who doesn’t believe in “any kind of religion or God or anything like that,” was asked to test the six small bone fragments found on the Bulgarian Black Sea island named Sveti Ivan – St. John.

Photo by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, their discoverer.

St. Ivan (St. John) Island, the site of the Early Christian St. John the Baptist Monastery, is located in the Black Sea, right off the coast of the resort town of Sozopol. Photo: Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The bones have turned out to be from a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus, Higham says.

“We got a date that was exactly where it should be, right in the middle of the first century," says the Oxford radiocarbon dating expert.

This is certainly not a definitive proof that the bone particles found in Bulgaria belonged to St. John the Baptist because there is no “DNA database" of Early Christian saints, says Bulgarian archeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov who found the bones.

But the mere fact that the testing did not prove the bones are fakes is unusual, the report points out reminding that Popkonstantinov led the team that found the relics under the altar of a 5th century basilica at the St. John the Baptist Monastery on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island off Sozopol on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast.

Photo by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov, their discoverer.

The sandstone box with the inscription about the man who brought St. John the Baptist relics to Sozopol. Photo: Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The bones were in a reliquary, a container for holy relics, with a tiny sandstone box. Written on the box in Greek were the words, “God, save your servant Thomas. To St. John. June 24.” The date is the Christian feast day of St. John the Baptist, believed to be his birthday.

When the bones were found in 2010, Popkonstantinov said it was “logical to suggest that the founders of the monastery did their best to bring relics of its patron saint."

Higham, the deputy director of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, got involved because a colleague knew the Bulgarian archeologists. National Geographic was also interested, so it provided funding for more extensive testing than Higham originally planned, and made a film about the project, CNN explains.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones were from the right period to be from St. John the Baptist, Higham says, while genetic testing shows it was a man and all the bones were from the same person.

DNA testing by colleagues at the University of Copenhagen suggested that the person was most likely to have been from the Middle East, he adds. More detailed nuclear DNA testing could pin down his location even more accurately, Higham said, but “does cost quite a lot of money."

There is reasonably good historical evidence that John the Baptist, whom Christians believe baptized his cousin Jesus, did exist, Paul Middleton, a senior lecturer in Biblical studies at the University of Chester, is quoted as saying

All four gospels and the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus say he was beheaded on the orders of the ruler Herod Antipas, Middleton said when the bones were found.

Photo by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov,

Part of the ruins of the Early Christian monastery on Bulgaria’s St. Ivan Island. Photo: Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

The six small bone particles found in Bulgaria’s Sozopol are far from the only relics purporting to belong to him. Four locations, from a mosque in Damascus, Syria, to a museum in Munich, Germany, claim to have his head, while the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, has a relic alleged to be his right arm. A monastery in Montenegro says it has his right hand, while another in Egypt has a crypt containing relics of the saint.

Radiocarbon dating expert from the Oxford School of Archaeology Tom Higham says he can test them to see if they match.

We have a complete genome. It’s possible that we could step this a step further and see if there is any similarity [in the genetic material of all the relics]. We’ve sort of got interested in this. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, and we know that there were relics moving out of the Middle East in the fourth and fifth century," he explains, while making it clear that for him, the project remains a purely scientific one.

St. Ivan Island Basilica 2

Part of the ruins of the St. John the Baptist Monastery on Bulgaria’s St. Ivan Island. Photo: Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov

“I’m an atheist. I perceive this as an archeological dating problem. We have some bones and we’re trying to get as much information out of them as we can," Higham is quoted as saying.

Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world. An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis. Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria. Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 12-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium. During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base. After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov. The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists. In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.