by Gary Vey for viewzone (2012)

Weirdness in Bulgaria

To most of the rest of the world, very little is known about the Eastern European countries that were isolated behind the "Iron Curtain" following WWII. During that time, the Communist discouraged church involvement and many religious sites were neglected. But modern day archaeology is quickly making up for lost time with some incredibly exciting discoveries from the past.

At least 100 graves have been discovered using modern-day archaeological techniques in which the skeletal remains appeared to have been pinned down with iron rods or stakes. Of course, everyone immediately thinks of vampires, who can only be permanently killed by a steak through the heart of their corpse.

The discovery last week of a 700-year-old skeleton with metal stakes where his heart had been has stirred vampire-mania in Europe, attracting flocks of tourists to the churchyard grave site in Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Sozopol.

[above The skeleton of a notorious Black Sea pirate known as Krivich, or 'Crooked' went on display at a Bulgarian museum as it was discovered, with a metal take through its heart.

The crowds and media interest were so huge that Bulgarian authorities had to moved the disinterred remains to a special display case at the Bulgarian Natural History Museum in Sofia.

"As recently as a century ago, Balkan peoples held to the belief that staking down the corpses of people who they regarded a evil would prevent them from rising from the dead and continuing to torment the living.

A group of brave men would reopen their graves and pierce the corpses with iron or wooden rods. Iron rod was used for the richer vampires." Dimitrov told journalists gathered around the skeleton, which he said was probably that of a notorious Black Sea pirate known as Krivich, or 'Crooked'."
--Archaeologist & museum director, Bozhidar Dimitrov

Vampire lore originated rom Transylvania, a region in neighboring Romania, where a brutal 15th century ruler known as Vlad the Impaler dealt with his enemies by skewering them on stakes and posting them to suffer their gruesome deaths in public. Vlad the Impaler was believed to be the real-life inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, Dracula.

But no sooner was the carnival of the "dark side" being celebrated in Bulgaria than another even more significant find was announced: Bulgaria possessed the bones of St. John the Baptist! This time, it was no legend. The claim was backed by DNA analysis and Carbon-14 radiocarbon dating.

The Bones of John the Baptist!

No other character in the ministry of Jesus is as important than John the Baptist. It was John, after all, who baptized Jesus in the Jordan river, commencing the short but profound career of the prophet from Nazareth.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased."

Matthew 3:13-17

Luke (1:36) describes John as a relative of Jesus, the son of his mother's sister, Elizabeth. John was the son of Zechariah, an old man, and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren. According to this account, the birth of John was foretold by the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, while Zachariah was performing his functions as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem. For this honor, the feast of St. John the Baptist is exactly six months opposite that of Jesus -- June 24th.

John chose a life of preaching in the desert and performing a ritual cleansing called baptism which symbolically forgave one's past sins and prepared them for some future apocalyptic event. It has been speculated that these ideas were similar to those of the Essenes, an isolated group who saw the world in terms of a fight between forces of light and darkness (good and evil).

John's religious career diminished following the onset of Jesus's preaching but he managed to irritate the local ruler, Herod, by criticizing him publicly for marrying his niece, Herodias. In the biblical account, Herodias performs a "dance" for Herod in return for the decapitated head of John.

All this history, and now we have the announcement that some of the bones of this man, John the Baptist, have been found on a small island (800 by 400 meters), just one kilometer off the coast of Sozopol [below].

A forgotten church & monastery

Sveti Ivan Island, was once home to a 5th Century Christian monastery and had a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Although forgotten to the locals, the site must have been important in antiquity as it received a special statue of the emperor, possibly because of what archaeologist found.

A stone compartment, called a reliquary, was built into the original altar. Archaeologists working at he site first noticed an inscription in ancient Greek which had the name "John the Baptist" and the date, June 24th -- the Christian date for celebrating his birth.

"God, save your servant Thomas. To St John. June 24."

Archaeologists first separated the "box" made of hardened volcanic ash. They then carefully opened he box, revealing the human bones.

They found six bones: a knuckle, sections of cranium, part of a jaw, a molar (tooth), and arm. Claims that these were actual body parts of St. John the Baptist were met with skepticism by both scientists and religious experts. Over the past millenium, hundreds of fake relics appeared in various churches and cathedrals, drawing pilgrims and bolstering the local economies. There was nothing to suspect that this find was anything different.

Nevertheless, specimens of the bones were subjected to both age dating and DNA profiling.

Tom Higham works at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of the world's top laboratories for carbon dating of archaeological material. The process of dating involves measuring the ratio of Carbon-14 in a specific sample. Organic matter absorbes this element when alive, releasing it following death at a steady rate. It is therefore possible to accurately estimate the time since the living material died. Tom dated a knuckle-bone to the first century AD, when John the Baptist would have lived.

"When I first heard this story ... I thought it was a bit of a joke, to be honest ... I'm much less skeptical than I was at the beginning. I think there's possibly more to it. But I'd like to find out more."
--Tom Higham, Oxford

Meanwhile,geneticist from the University of Copenhagen established the full DNA code of three of the bones, establishing that they were all from the same individual -- a man who most probably came from the Middle East.

"Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory."
--Dr Hannes Schroeder, from the University of Copenhagen

What now?...

Obviously, the next step would be to have the remaining bone fragments, including those held in other collections, tested for their DNA sequence. If they match these Bulgarian bones' DNA then the likelihood of some body in antiquity being revered as that of St. John the Baptist is heightened.

Many sites around the world claim to hold relics of St. John, including the Grand Mosque in Damascus which claims to have his head. Countries around the Mediterranean claiming to have remains include Turkey, Greece, Italy and Egypt. The right hand with which the prophet allegedly baptised Jesus in the River Jordan is also claimed to be held by several entities, including a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Montenegro. Added up, one historian commented that there are 6 head and 12 hands of John the Baptist in myriad collections.

The possibility that DNA researchers have the full code of one of Jesus's family members -- especially on his mother's side -- opens the door to all kinds of possibilities for future research and comment. For now, it's all a matter of faith.

Predictions are that the "vampire" bones will draw more attention than these newly discovered relics in Bulgaria.

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