Archaeologist Finds Two Human Skeletons, One Ram Skeleton in Early Christian Tomb on St. Ivan Island in Black Sea Off Bulgaria’s Sozopol

One of the two human skeletons discovered inside the recently found Early Christian tomb near the basilica in the St. John the Baptist Monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol in the Black Sea. Photo: BurgasNews

One of the two human skeletons discovered inside the recently found Early Christian tomb near the basilica in the St. John the Baptist Monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol in the Black Sea. Photo: BurgasNews

Two human skeletons and a ram skeleton have been discovered by Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan Island off the coast of the town of Sozopol (the same island where relics of St. John the Baptist were found in the summer of 2010) which was found and opened in mid July 2015.

Some two weeks ago, Popkonstantinov opened the newly found Early Christian tomb, which is dated to the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD, in the presence of journalists but no human remains were found there at first glance.

Further excavations inside the tomb, however, have now revealed what appears to be a unique Early Christian funeral of two men buried together with a ram, reports local news site BurgasNews.

According to the Bulgarian archaeologist, the two men were buried in the tomb in the 4th-5th century AD one after the other, possibly with a time difference of 15 years. Both skeletons are about 1.60 meters tall.

“This funeral has no analogy, and so does the presence of a ram in it. We have examples of [burying of animals together with humans] in pagan rites. [For example,] the Ancient Bulgars had such a tradition before they adopted Christianity. But even then, only parts of animals were buried, not the entire animals. Usually, this was meant to provide food in the afterlife. This [presence of the ram] makes our discovery very interesting and provocative for archaeologists," Popkonstantinov is quoted as saying.

He further reveals his team has found evidence of a collapsed wall of the Early Christian basilica in the monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island which probably resulted from an earthquake or a landslide.

The archaeologist thinks it is possible that the monks from the Early Christian monastery on the island were scared off by the collapsing of the basilica wall. They may have placed the ram inside the tomb of what was likely two clergymen men who they saw as defenders before God in order to plead that no more natural disasters would affect the monastery.

The ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

The ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is pictured here with the ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is pictured here with the ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

“[Otherwise] there is no monastic tradition of putting animals in the graves of buried monks… The ram was put in the tomb intact which shows that the animal was a sacrifice placed there to seek vindication from God. Basically, this is a pagan rite but there is also a [relevant] Biblical plot in which Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his son Isaac," contemplates Popkonstantinov.

The archaeologist believes one of the men buried in the tomb may have been a senior clergyman, possibly the man who founded the St. John the Baptist Monastery on the small island off the coast of Sozopol in the Black Sea.

The other skeleton might be the man who brought the relics of St. John the Baptist found on the island back in July 2010 who according to the inscription on the reliquary was named Thomas (Toma).

“We can speculate that one of these men was Thomas who brought the particles from the relics of St. John to the island. This man had a very important role for the monastery, that’s why it is possible that he was buried here. The other body probably belonged to the senior clergyman who founded the monastery. We have seen similar examples from Palestine in the early period [of Christianity] where some founders of monasteries were buried in this way, and some of them were canonized as saints. But we also hope to find a burial inscription that can give us more information," Popkonstantinov is quoted as saying.

“The tomb itself is a unique jewel. The way it was constructed has no parallel among hundreds [of tombs] discovered from that period. The tiles are unique. They are about 70 cm long and 40 cm wide, and are placed vertically. The planning of the tomb and the placing of an entire ram inside it also have no analogy regardless of whether that was a monastery tomb, or not," he adds.

The team of archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov is expecting the arrival of Viktoria Ruseva, an anthropologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who is going to examine the newly discovered skeletons in order to determine their age, and to extract other information.

Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is pictured here with the ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is pictured here with the ram skeleton discovered inside the Early Christian tomb on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

Part of the ruins of the Early Christian St. John the Baptist Monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria's Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

Part of the ruins of the Early Christian St. John the Baptist Monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol. Photo: BurgasNews

The newly found tomb is located near the northern part of the altar of the Early Christian basilica on the St. Ivan Island which was part of the St. John the Baptist Monastery. The tomb is dated to the period when the basilica was constructed – the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century AD. At the time, Sozopol and the St. Ivan Island were territory of the Eastern Roman Empire known today as Byzantium.

In front of the tomb, the archaeologists discovered part of a sanctuary lamp, which is taken as evidence that it was the burial place of a senior clergyman.

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, to the north of Burgas, 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 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.