5th Century BC Ancient Greek Shrine Discovered in First Ever Excavations on Tiny St. Peter Island off Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast near Sozopol

5th Century BC Ancient Greek Shrine Discovered in First Ever Excavations on Tiny St. Peter Island off Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast near Sozopol

The first ever archaeological excavations on St. Petar / St. Peter Island near Bulgaria’s Sozopol exposed what appears to have been an Ancient Greek shrine in the 5th century BC. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

An Antiquity shrine from the 5th century BC, the time of the Ancient Greek colonization of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, has been discovered during the first ever archaeological excavations on the tiny St. Petar / St. Peter Island off the coast of Sozopol, right next to the St. Ivan / St. John Island famous for the discovery of relics of St. John the Baptist.

The discovery has been announced by the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas.

The St. Ivan (“St. John") Island is located about 900 meters away from the closest point on the Bulgarian mainland, the Stolets Peninsula (Cape Stolets, or Scamnia) in the town of Sozopol. The St. Peter Island, which is really small, is roughly the same distance from the coast, and only 50 meters away from the St. Ivan Island.

The town of Sozopol itself is the modern-day successor of ancient Apollonia Pontica (Sozopolis), an Ancient Greek colony dating back to the 6th century BC, on the western Black Sea coast which was inhabited by Ancient Thracians.

The St. Ivan Island is the largest from Bulgaria’s several small islands in the Black Sea. It is best known for the discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist in 2010, with the excavations there yielding new finds such as the 2015 discovery of a tomb possibly containing the bones of the monastery founder, a Syrian monk who brought the relics.

The St. Peter Island next to it, however, had never been researched by archaeologists before the fall of 2020, the Burgas History Museum says.

It points out that the St. Peter Island near the St. Ivan Island and Sozopol has a maximum altitude of 9 meters above sea level. Its territory is only 15 decares (0.015 square kilometers or 3.7 acres).

The St. Petar / St. Peter Island (front) and the St. Ivan / St. John Island (back) near Sozopol on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

An aerial view of the St. Petar / St. Peter Island off Sozopol’s coast. Photo: Burgas Regional Museum of History

“It is hypothesized that the St. Peter Island used to be part of the St. Ivan Island, and that it got separated from it due to the rising sea levels and the ensuing geological processes over the past two millennia. The St. Peter Island is not mentioned in historical sources predating the second half of the 19th century," the Burgas Museum states.

It also explains there have been presumptions that the St. Peter Island used to harbor an ancient church or monastery named after St. Peter.

It quotes Greek historian Lambros Kamberidis as hypothesizing that must have been the case considering that the St. Ivan Island had an early Christian monastery named after St Ivan, i.e. St. John the Baptist. The same was true of the St. Kiril (St. Cyricus), also known as the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Island), which is today a peninsula as it was connected with the mainland.

The late long-time director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History Tsonya Drazheva also mentioned the existence of chapel foundations on the St. Peter Island.

At the same time, there have been no data about accidental discoveries of archaeological artifacts from the St. Peter Island near Bulgaria’s Sozopol.

The only find to have been associated with the island has been a stone stock found south of it by divers who donated it to the National Museum of History in Sofia.

Thus, the first ever archaeological excavations on the St. Peter Island were carried out between September 28 and October 8, 2020, the Burgas Museum has announced.

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They included drills on an area of 66 square meters, which resulted in the discovery of two structures in the eastern section of the surveyed area: two low mounds of soil brought from a different location, which were covered up with small stones.

Inside the mounds, the archaeologists have found fragments from pottery vessels such as amphorae, bowls, thick kitchen vessels, and ceramic vessels covered with red polish and black glaze.

A remarkable artifact found in the mounds is the bronze tip of a three-edged arrow.

Based on their findings, the archaeologists have concluded that the spot they have excavated on the St. Peter Island in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol used to harbor a coastal shrine from the 5th century BC.

The shrine was used as part of a ritual for making small soil mounds covered with stones.

That was the period of the Ancient Greek colonization of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. No artifacts from other time periods have been found.

Bulgaria’s St. Ivan (St. John) Island off the coast of Sozopol (left) with the smaller St. Petar (St. Peter) Island to the right. Photo: Spiritia, Wikipedia

A Google Maps image showing the islands of St. Ivan and St. Petar, and the town of Sozopol with the St. Cyricus Island (today a peninsula), and the Stolets (Scamnia) Peninsula. Photo: Google Maps

The geological research carried out as part of the excavations has indicated that some 2,500 years ago, today’s St. Peter Island was part of the largest nearby St. Ivan Island, and that the two became separate islands at a much later stage.

The first ever archaeological excavations on the St. Peter Island near Sozopol have been led by Prof. Ivan Hristov, deputy director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, and Milen Nikolov, director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History. The geological research has been performed by Assist. Prof. Stefan Velev from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski". The digs have been funded by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

Learn more about the ancient and medieval history of Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Sozopol in the Background Infonotes below!

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Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town 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 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.

A 2012 National Geographic documentary featuring the discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in Bulgaria’s Sozopol can be seen here (in English and here in Bulgarian).

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.

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