A group of scientists in Oxford have revealed that bones found under the floor of a medieval monastery in Bulgaria do date to the 1st century AD. The revelation is important because it adds further evidence for claims that the bones belong to the religious figure Saint John the Baptist.
The claims have come about because an inscription mentioning the saint was found on a 'reliquary' box near the bones. Such a box would have been used to carry 'relics'.
However the scientists have said that although the bones do date to the period in which the saint is believed to have lived, the Carbon dating evidence alone does not prove that the bones are those of John the Baptist - described in the Bible as a prophet and cousin of Jesus Christ.
– Professor Thomas Higham, Oxford University
‘We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries.
"However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD. Whether that person is John the Baptist is a question that we cannot yet definitely answer and probably never will.’
The bones were found on the island of 'Sveti Ivan' in Bulgaria which translated into English means 'St John'. Six human bones were among the finds uncovered by the archaeologist Kazimir Popkonstantinov while excavating under an ancient church. They included a tooth, and the face part of a cranium which were found in small marble sarcophagus under the floor near the altar. Three animal bones were also inside the sarcophagus.
Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four human bones, but only one of them contained enough collagen to be dated successfully.
The bones are thought to belong to St John the Baptist because the Bulgarian archaeologists found a small 'tuff' box (made of hardened volcanic ash) close to the sarcophagus. The reliquary box has an inscription in Ancient Greek that mentions John the Baptist and his feast day, as well as text which asks God to ‘help your servant Thomas’.
One theory put forward is that 'Thomas' is someone who had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island. Scientists and archaeologists say an analysis of the 'tuff' box shows that it has a high waterproof quality and is likely to have originated from Cappadocia, a region in Turkey.
The Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones may have come to Bulgaria via the ancient Turkish city of Antioch where St John the Baptists's right hand was kept until the tenth century.