Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Lead Reliquary with Ashes from John the Apostle’s Grave during Excavations of Ancient Fortress Burgos (Poros)

The lead tube reliquary containing ashes from the grave of John the Apostle is only 2.2 cm long and has a diameter of 1.7 cm. Photo by Top Novini

The lead tube reliquary containing ashes from the grave of John the Apostle is only 2.2 cm long and has a diameter of 1.7 cm. Photo by Top Novini Burgas

Ashes from the grave of John the Apostle, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, have been discovered in a lead tube reliquary by Bulgarian archaeologists during excavations of the ancient and medieval port of Burgos (also known as Poros) on Cape Foros in today’s Black Sea city of Burgas.

The discovery of the lead tube containing ashes from the grave of John the Apostle, who is known as St. John the Theologian in Bulgarian (Eastern) Orthodox Christianity, located in the ancient city of Ephesus in Anatolia, today’s Turkey, has been made during the 2014 excavations of the fortress of Burgos (or Poros) on Cape Foros in Burgas but was announced only on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, by Milen Nikolov, Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History, at a special press conference.

He has also announced other intriguing finds such as the discovery of a Late Antiquity latrine, also found at Burgos (Poros), and the discovery of a 10th century Bulgarian royal seal from the Rusocastro Fortress.

The structures at the ancient and medieval fortress and port of Burgos (Poros) which were excavated in 2014 include an Early Christian basilica from the 6th century AD, a building complex from the 5th-6th century AD, and a Roman villa from the 3rd century AD. The John the Apostle reliquary was found in the 6th century basilica.

“Probably a pilgrim from the Foros Peninsula (Cape) went on a pilgrimage to Ephesus, and came back here with this relic which was then donated to the basilica on Foros,” Nikolov has explained, as cited by local news site Gramofona.

Nikolov has described the finding of the reliquary as “one of the most important discoveries in the history of the [Burgas Regional History] Museum, and the lead tube as a “holy possession that preserved a holy substance” having to do with the beliefs that every year on May 8, the date of John the Apostle’s death, there is manna, a holy curing powder, on the site of his grave.

The lead tube reliquary itself containing the ashes from the grave of John the Apostle (St. John the Theologian) is really tiny: it is only 2.2 cm (less than an inch) long, and its diameter measures 1.7 cm.

The reliquary is dated to the 6th century AD when pilgrimage to the Holy Lands was very common among Christians, Nikolov explains. On one of its sides there is an image of a cross with equal arms inside a medallion, and on the opposite side there is an image of two overlapping crosses with equal arms. The neck of the tube is also decorated with crosses. It has only one handle left, the other has broken off.

Burgas History Museum Director MIlen Nikolov shows images of the John the Apostle reliquary during his presentation on March 25, 2015. Photo by Top Novini Burgas

Burgas History Museum Director MIlen Nikolov shows images of the John the Apostle reliquary during his presentation on March 25, 2015. Photo by Top Novini Burgas

In addition to the so called Empty Tomb, i.e. the Tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, the other centers of Christian pilgrimage in the 6th century AD included the grave of St. Menas in Abu Mina in Egypt; the grave of St. Simeon Stylites the Elder in Antioch (in today’s Turkey); the grave of St. Thecla (or Tecla) in Seleucia, Mesopotamia; the grave of St. Isidore of Chios on the Aegean island of Chios; and the graves of John the Apostle (St. John the Theologian), St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Timothy in Ephesus.

All of these Early Christian pilgrimage centers produced primarily clay tubes for holy water; a total of only 43 lead tubes from this time period are known in the entire world, the Bulgarian archaeologists from the Burgas Museum point out.

They explaining 20 of those known lead tubes have been found in the St. John the Baptist Basilica in Monza, Italy (the Monza Cathedral); they were a gift from Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628) made at the beginning of the 6th century.

Another 16 lead tubes have been found in a grave in the Bobbio Abbey (a monastery founded by Irish Saint Columbanus in 614 AD) in the Italian town of Bobbio, close to Milan.

One lead tube reliquary has been discovered in the Sant Pere de Casserres Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the town of Les Masies de Roda, Osona comarca, Catalonia, Spain.

In addition to these lead tube reliquaries, three others are kept in Germany and four in the USA, all of which were produced in Jerusalem and have depictions of Gospel scenes.

Even though the reliquary discovered by the Bulgarian archaeologists in the basilica in the ancient and medieval fortress Burgos (Poros) on Cape Foros is also a lead tube, it is different from the other known lead tube reliquaries because the images on it are identical with the images from a group of clay tube reliquaries produced in ancient Ephesus.

The excavations on the Cape of Foros, in the ancient and medieval port of Burgos (Poros) where the 6th century reliquary was discovered. Photo by e-burgas.com

The excavations on the Cape of Foros, in the ancient and medieval port of Burgos (Poros) where the 6th century reliquary was discovered. Photo by e-burgas.com

“That is why at this stage we believe that the Burgas reliquary comes from this pilgrimage center (i.e. Ephesus) and it must be connected with the cult for St. John the Theologian (John the Apostle),” the head of the Burgas Museum of History, Milen Nikolov, explains.

He also notes that John the Apostle was particularly cherished by the Early Christians. According to the Bible, John was Jesus Christ’s favorite disciple, and when Jesus was crucified he asked John to take care of the Holy Mother, Virgin Mary.

Later, John the Apostle settled in the ancient city of Ephesus together with Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene. This is where he wrote the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse, and lived till the rest of his life.

According to some historical sources, Christian pilgrims from around the world would gather on his grave in the Ephesus basilica on May 8, the date of his death. They would sprinkle rose petals on the rock above the basilica, and the next day wonder-working powder would appear on the rock. This manna could cure all kinds of diseases, which is why it was collected by the pilgrims in reliquaries and taken to their places of origin as evidence of their pilgrimage or as an apotropeus (an apotropaic item, i.e. an amulet chasing away evil).

Some scholars believe the manna collected by the pilgrims came from the pollen from the roses they placed on John the Apostle’s grave in Ephesus.

“That is why, at this point, we believe that a pilgrim from the fortress of Poros went on a pilgrimage to the grave of St. John the Theologian in Ephesus from where he brought the valuable reliquary with curing powder,” Nikolov elaborates.

Another view of the lead tube reliquary found near Bulgaria's Burgas. Photo by e-burgas.com

Another view of the lead tube reliquary found near Bulgaria’s Burgas. Photo by e-burgas.com

The discovery of the lead tube reliquary with ashes from the grave of John the Apostle in Ephesus near Burgas resembles another relic discovery from the same region, Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast.

Back in 2010 during excavations of an ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, just to the north of Burgas (and the ancient and medieval port of Burgos (Poros) on Cape Foros), Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. The relics of St. John the Baptist, which consist of small bone particles from a skull, jaw bone, arm bone, and tooth, have received lots of international interest in the years since then, and in February 2015 CNN reported that Oxford University scholars had confirmed the possibility of their authenticity by concluding that they belonged to a man who lived in the Middle East at the same time as Jesus Christ.

Background Infonotes:

The ancient and medieval fortress and port of Burgos (Poros) is located on the Cape of Foros in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas. It was first first excavated in 2008 by archaeologists Milen Nikolov (currently Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History), Dr. Tsonya Drazheva, and Konstantin Gospodinov, after access to its site was denied for decades because of the existence of a nearby military base which has been closed down in recent years. Part of its fortress wall was first discovered in 1989 during the construction of a cow farm. Even though there have been traces of ancient life, the fortress and port city of Burgos (Poros) on the Cape of Foros in Bulgaria’s Burgas is dated back to the Late Antiquity / Late Roman period, with the Bulgarian archaeologists uncovering a large number of buildings, artifacts, and pottery vessels dating back to the 4th-6th century AD. Their excavations have revealed a complex set of fortifications, including walls, ramparts, and towers, which were rebuilt and reorganized multiple times from the 4th until the middle of the 15th century, and were in use throughout this entire period by different states: the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire. Some of the more interesting finds including a stone block with an Ancient Roman inscription in Greek mentioning the name of Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244 AD); a 2nd century AD inscription carved into stone stating that “burgi” (fortifications) were built on the border of the Roman colony of Deultum (located some 10 km inland from the Black Sea coast near today’s town of Debelt) – hence, possibly, the name Burgos; a basilica; the remains of a small monastery called “St. George” which is described in a 13th century Byzantine source; the 6th century lead tube reliquary containing ashes from the grave of John the Apostle in Ephesus, Anatolia.

The Foros pennisula was marked on Italian and Catalan maps from the 13th-17th century as an old fortress and port under the name Poro (strait) or Poros, which means that the fortress defended the waterway entry point of the nearby Lake Mandra which flows out into the Black Sea. A stone inscription dating back to the 2nd century AD (presently exhibited in the Burgas Regional Museum of History) discovered on the site states that “burgi” (fortifications) were built on the border of Roman colony Deultum (located some 10 km inland from the Black Sea coast near today’s town of Debelt). Historians believe that there used to be a large fortified port along the waterway between Lake Mandra and the Black Sea which served and protected the Roman city of Deultum. The Roman road station called Pudizo marked in the 4th century Tabula Peutingeriana (the Peutinger Map showing cursus publicus, the road network in the Roman Empire, covering Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia) has been discovered in this same area.

The area of the Burgos (Poros) fortress and the Cape of Foros is also famous for being the site of a major battle during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD). The so called Battle of Skafida (named after the Skafida River and the Skafida Fortress, another medieval fortress located nearby) took place in 1304 AD when the forces of Bulgarian Tsar Theodore Svetoslav (r. 1300-1322 AD) defeated the army of Byzantine Emperor Michael IX Palaiologos (Palaeologus) (r. 1294-1320), after having reconquered earlier the nearby Black Sea cities of Rusocastro, Mesembria, Anchialos, Sozopolis and Agathopolis. The victory in the Battle of Skafida helped the Second Bulgarian Empire regain most of the region of Thrace from Byzantium bringing it a period of relative stability at the beginning of the 14th century, after feudal strife had put it in a state of permanent dynastic crisis at the end of the 13th century.