Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
comic strip overdue media

Friday, August 13, 2010

Politics, speculation, archaeology, and faith--a lively combination

Are these the bones of John the Baptist?
In a region already rich with archaeological artefacts, the excavation of a small alabaster box containing a few pieces of bone amid the ruins of a medieval monastery might easily have passed unnoticed.

But when Bulgarian archaeologists declared they had found relics of John the Baptist, one of the most significant early Christian saints, their discovery became the subject of rather more interest -- prompting angry exchanges in the local media and even calls for a government minister's resignation.

The claim is based on a reliquary -- a container for holy relics -- found on July 28 under the altar of a fifth century basilica on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island off Sozopol on Bulgaria's southern coast. Inside, archaeologists found eight pieces of bone, including fragments of skull and face bone and a tooth.

A later monastery on the island was dedicated to John the Baptist; indirect evidence, according to excavation leader Kazimir Popkonstantinov, that the relics under the altar were those of the church's saint.

But Popkonstantinov told CNN the "key" clue to the relics' origins was a tiny sandstone box found alongside the reliquary with a Greek inscription: "God, save your servant Thomas. To St John. June 24."

Popkonstantinov said the date, celebrated by Christians as John's nativity, indicated a direct link between the saint and the site. The rest of the inscription suggested the bearer of the box used it as an amulet for protection, perhaps carrying the relics in a simple container to avoid attracting attention, he speculated.
There's certainly a lot of speculation going on in this case, which is ultimately unprovable for, as the excavation leader states, ...'[T]here is no database with DNA profiles of the saints. Here, I believe, the science stops. Since we cannot prove the attribution of any of the relics with scientific methods, we have to be tolerant of those who want to believe that they are'. They hope to find out more about the bones (gender, whether they are from the same person, age, etc.) But it's still an interesting find.

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